Cape Canaveral. The Moon is about to be hit by three tons of space junk, creating a crater that could fit several semi-trailer vehicles.
A leftover rocket will crash tomorrow against the other side of that star, at 9,300 kilometers per hour, far from the eyes of telescopes. It can take weeks, even months, to confirm the impact.
It has been tumbling randomly through space, experts believe, since China launched it nearly a decade ago. But officials in this country doubt that it is theirs.
Regardless of who it is, scientists expect the object to punch a hole 10 to 20 meters wide and send moondust hundreds of kilometers away.
Space debris in low orbit is relatively easy to track. Objects sent deeper into space are unlikely to hit anything and these pieces are usually soon forgotten, except by a handful of observers who enjoy playing detective.
SpaceX originally took the blame for the upcoming lunar debris after asteroid tracker Bill Gray pinpointed the course of the collision in January, but corrected itself a month later, arguing the mystery object was “not a rocket upper stage.” SpaceX Falcon of the launch in 2015 of a climate observatory in deep space for NASA”.
It added that it was probably the third stage of a Chinese rocket that sent a test sample capsule to the moon and back in 2014, but the Asian ministry alleged that the upper stage had re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.
There were two Chinese missions with similar designations: the test flight and the 2020 lunar sample return mission, and US observers believe the two are getting confused.
The US Space Command, which tracks lower space debris, confirmed that the Chinese upper stage of the 2014 lunar mission never left orbit, as had been indicated in its database; however, he was unable to confirm the country of origin of the object about to hit the satellite.
“We focus on objects closer to Earth,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Gray, a mathematician and physicist, said he is now confident it is China’s rocket.
Meanwhile, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics supports Gray’s revised assessment, but notes that “the effect will be the same. It will leave another small crater.”
The Moon already has countless craters, measuring up to 2,500 kilometers. With little to no real atmosphere, it is defenseless against the constant barrage of meteorites and asteroids, and the occasional approaching ships, including some intentionally crashed at the request of science. Without weather, there is no erosion, so impact craters last forever.
China has a lander on the far side of the moon, but it will be too far away to detect Friday’s impact, precisely north of the equator. NASA’s reconnaissance orbiter will also be out of range. It is unlikely that the Chandrayan-2, of India, which orbits the star, pass by then.
JPL’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies supports Gray’s reassessment. A team from the University of Arizona also recently identified the Chinese rocket segment long march from the light reflected in his painting, during the observations of the careening cylinder telescope. It is about 40 feet (12 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter, and somersaults every two to three minutes.
“It is not a problem of SpaceX, nor from China. No one is particularly careful about what they do with the garbage,” Gray said.
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