A discarded rocket booster soon hits the moon. But is this really coming from SpaceX? The component discoverer admits a bug.
Update on Sunday, February 13, 2022 at 11:00 p.m.: The news has been in the headlines for some time: Private space company SpaceX’s discarded “Falcon-9” rocket stage is drifting in space and on a collision course with the moon. However, it now turns out that this report is false.
Although a rocket component orbits the moon, it is not a SpaceX rocket stage. There is a high probability that the scenario comes from China. American researcher Bill Gray, who wrote the message about the Elon Musk rocket, has admitted the mistake on his home page.
Rocket on collision course with the moon: Object incorrectly identified as a SpaceX rocket
Gray explained that in 2015 he and other observers saw an unidentified object in the sky and gave it a working name: WE0913A. In February 2015, a SpaceX rocket carried the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite into Earth orbit. According to Gray, other observations have indicated that the discovery must be a man-made object. The second stage of the “Falcon 9” rocket quickly became the most likely candidate.
However, NASA researcher Jon Giorgini took a closer look at Gray’s observation and concluded that the SpaceX rocket could not have entered orbit at all. He informed Bill Gray of his find in an email on Saturday (February 12, 2022), which he reports on his website.
But not SpaceX: Chinese rocket component is supposed to hit the moon
“Spurred by Jon’s email, I searched my email archive to remember why I originally identified the object as a DSCOVR level seven years ago,” wrote Bill Gray. As he searched through his files, he was still completely convinced that he hadn’t made a mistake. But Gray also noticed the inconsistencies on closer inspection.
The American researcher investigated his data and found that the rocket part must be the propellant of a Chinese “Long March 3” rocket, which was used in the Chang’e 5-T1 lunar mission. The launch time and lunar orbit matched almost exactly the orbit of the object that will hit the moon in March. The Chinese booster will reach the moon’s surface on March 4, according to Gray’s calculations.
Although the new find is only circumstantial, Bill Gray is still convinced that the object must be the Chinese rocket component. The investigator spoke of “pretty convincing evidence.”
SpaceX rocket out of control: impact on the moon is imminent
First report for Tuesday, January 25, 2022: Frankfurt – If you launch a rocket into space, it usually stops being interesting after a few minutes; after all, it is just the transporter and it has served its purpose: a space travel– mission on the way. At SpaceX, billionaire Elon Musk’s private space company, the rocket’s first stage after launch remains relevant: It usually lands on an autonomous craft or on the ground and is prepared for the next rocket launch. But for the second stage of the rocket, the adage “out of sight, out of mind” generally applies.
No wonder: the rocket’s second stage usually burns up on impact with the Earth’s atmosphere. But a rocket stage launched by SpaceX in 2015 is suddenly turning heads again. In February 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite into space. It was the first SpaceX interplanetary rocket launch to lift its payload out of Earth orbit.
SpaceX rocket stage on collision course with the moon
As the NOAA satellite began its journey to what is known as a LaGrange point, more than a million kilometers from Earth, the rocket’s second stage ran out of fuel to head into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. And it also lacked the energy to escape the gravity of the earth and the moon.
And that’s how a SpaceX rocket stage has been falling into a chaotic orbit through the Earth-Moon system since February 2015. But the object’s fate is now apparently sealed: A new calculation shows that its orbit puts the jettisoned object on a collision course with the moon. Bill Gray, who developed software used by professional and amateur astronomers around the world to observe near-Earth objects, asteroids and comets, believes that the uncontrolled impact of the SpaceX rocket on the Moon in early March should happen.
SpaceX rocket stage lurches uncontrollably toward the moon
Because the rocket stage seems to wobble in its orbit, Gray requested observations some time ago to get more data. Using this new data, Gray expects the Falcon 9 rocket stage to impact on March 4, 2022, on the far side of the moon, near the equator.
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However, there are still uncertainties because “space debris can be a bit tricky”, as Gray writes on his website. How sunlight affects the object is “difficult to predict perfectly,” explains Gray. “The unpredictable effects are very small, but they will accumulate between now and March 4,” continues the researcher.
Space exploration: SpaceX rocket stage will reach the moon in March 2022
Gray wants to predict the rocket’s impact on the moon as accurately as possible to allow investigation of the impact. NASA’s “Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter” (LRO) and India’s “Chandrayaan-2” lunar orbiters could find the resulting crater on the moon’s surface and perhaps even observe the impact. So far, Gray fears his prediction is off by several minutes, hoping for more observations in February that might minimize the uncertainty.
Space: SpaceX rocket stage likely to leave impact craters on the moon
If the SpaceX rocket stage hits the moon, Gray believes it would be the first accidental impact of space debris on the moon. In October 2009, the US space agency Nasa deliberately caused the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) spacecraft to impact the moon to gain scientific knowledge. Previously, the probes that were supposed to land had already reached the moon. NASA’s “Apollo” missions also intentionally dropped spacecraft parts on the moon.
The next rocket stage impact on the moon is “essentially a free LCROSS,” Gray writes. However, you probably won’t see the impact, as it’s likely to take place on the back side of the moon. “If we can tell the folks at LRO and Chandrayaan exactly where the crater is, they might be able to see a very new impact crater at that location and potentially learn about the geology of this part of the moon,” Gray surmises. After all, we know the mass of an empty Falcon 9 second stage (four tons) and the speed at which it will impact: 2.58 km/s (about 9,300 km/h). (tab)
SpaceX is repeatedly criticized for its “Starlink” satellite constellation: a recent study showed that satellites mainly affect astronomy at sunset, and this is precisely what is important for the search for potentially dangerous near-Earth objects. The impact of countless rocket launches on the environment is also discussed.
List of rubrics: © Guo Cheng/dpa
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