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Rogue SpaceX Rocket to Collide With the Moon

SpaceX
A SpaceX rocket launched in 2015 is on a collision course with the Moon. Credit: Official SpaceX Photos, CC BY-C 2.0

A rocket launched by SpaceX in 2015 could collide with the moon sometime in the coming month, potentially leaving a new crater on the moon’s surface.

The SpaceX Falcon rocket stage went rogue after it was used six years ago to launch the US Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). It has been in limbo throughout the Earth-moon system, but now space experts believe it will make impact with the moon in early March.

Bill Gray, an independent researcher who studies orbital dynamics, was the first person to realize that the rocket was on its way towards a collision with the moon. Gray believes that the rocket will make impact on 7:26 a.m. ET on March 4.

“Right now, we can’t get more data because the object is quite close to the sun in the sky. On February 7 and 8, we’ll have a brief opportunity to look at it and will get more data, and the above time and location will be better determined,” Gray told CNN in an email.

NASA has released its own statement about its plans to keep tabs on the rocket as it makes its way to the moon:

“NASA is monitoring the trajectory of a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage, which supported the U.S. Air Force (now U.S. Space Force) launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission in 2015,” said Karen Fox, NASA’s Senior Science Communications Officer.

“That mission is a partnership between NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Space Force. After completing its flight, the second stage was put in its intended Earth-escape, heliocentric disposal orbit,” she explained. “On its current trajectory, the second stage is expected to impact the far side of the Moon on March 4, 2022.”

Unplanned collisions in space could become more common

Although it is relatively rare for spacecraft to collide with the moon, experts are not particularly worried. In fact, many are relieved that the rocket stage is hurtling towards the moon rather than making an uncontrolled entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket part is 49 feet long and weighs roughly 4 tons.

“The stage would be permanently disposed. From a safety point of view, this is actually the safest way of disposing it. Leaving it drifting around an orbit around the Sun does not provide assurance that it will not be captured again by Earth one day,” said Holger Krag, the European Space Agency’s head of Space Debris.

Some experts believe that this is the first of what will likely be many future unplanned collisions between spacecraft and the moon.

“Traffic in deep space is increasing,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told CNN. “And it’s not just the USA and [Russia] sending stuff to deep space, it’s many countries and even commercial companies like SpaceX. So I think it’s time for the world to get more serious about regulating and cataloging deep space activity.”

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