Science

A stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will crash into the moon on March 4

It turns out that SpaceX will reach the surface of the moon a little earlier than anticipated.

Elon Musk’s company is providing the landing system for the first manned landing for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, a milestone the agency hopes to achieve in 2025. But a piece of SpaceX hardware will hit the gray earth much sooner. than that, in just five weeks or so.

Satellite trackers have determined that the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched in February 2015 will crash into the moon on March 4, Eric Berger of Ars Technica reported Monday (Jan 24). The observers were led by Bill Gray, who runs Project Pluto, a company that supplies software to professional and amateur astronomers.

Related: The evolution of SpaceX rockets in pictures

The rocket in question launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a joint effort of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. DSCOVR studies our planet and space weather environment from Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1 (L1), a gravitationally stable point about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in the direction of the sun. (NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope has just arrived at L2, which is 930,000 miles from Earth in the other direction, toward Mars orbit.)

SpaceX typically disposes of Falcon 9’s upper stages after launch by sending them back into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery death. (SpaceX lands and reuses the first stages of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. But the company had yet to achieve a first-stage landing at the time of the DSCOVR launch; the first such success came in December 2015.) ).

However, the upper stage was so high after sending DSCOVR on its way that it didn’t have enough fuel to return to its home planet, Berger wrote. So it has been sailing through the Earth-Moon system in a long, circular orbit for nearly seven years.

Your time is now almost up. Gray, using data collected by a variety of observers, calculated that the stage will crash into the moon on March 4 at 7:25 a.m. EST (12:25 GMT). The impact will occur on the far side of the Moon, at about 4.93 degrees north latitude and 233.20 degrees east longitude.

“My guess is that the above prediction may be off by a degree or two minutes from the predicted time,” Gray wrote in a blog post about the looming impact, citing the difficulty of accurately modeling how sunlight pressure moves a cylindrical object that wobbles like a rocket stage.

“We will need (and am confident we will get) more observations in early February to refine the prediction – that will greatly reduce the uncertainty,” he added.

Because it will occur on the far side of the moon, the impact will not be visible from Earth. But pinpointing its time and location remains important, which could allow lunar-orbiting spacecraft such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and India’s Chandrayaan 2 to study the resulting crater, “and, if we’re lucky, maybe we can imagine the impact,” Gray wrote.

Gray’s calculations have been confirmed by others in the know.

“For those asking: yes, a second stage from the old Falcon 9 that was left in high orbit in 2015 is going to hit the moon on March 4. It’s interesting, but it’s not a big deal,” said the astronomer and satellite tracker. Jonathan McDowell of Harvard University. The Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts wrote via Twitter on Tuesday (Jan 25).

Objects “remaining in cislunar orbit are unstable; they will eventually hit the Moon or Earth or be perturbed into solar orbit,” he added in another tweet. (“Cislunar” refers to the region between the Earth and the moon).

The upcoming impact will be the “first example of an unplanned Regolith disassembly if the orbital dynamics are true,” SpaceX lead integration engineer John Insprucker tweeted Monday, invoking the RUD acronym Musk often uses to describe the destruction. or “rapid unplanned teardown.” — from a rocket during tests here on Earth.

Insprucker, who hosts many of SpaceX’s launch webcasts, clarified in a subsequent tweet that the upcoming impact will be the first lunar RUD for the company, not the first overall. In fact, many spacecraft have unintentionally crashed into the moon over the years. In 2019, for example, Israel’s Beresheet probe and Chandrayaan 2 lander crashed during their lunar landing attempts.

Related: The Best Lunar Crashes Of All Time

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The upper stage of the Falcon 9 will also not be the first rocket body to reach the moon. NASA directed the upper stages of multiple Saturn V rockets toward the moon during the Apollo program, for example. And in 2009, the agency intentionally crashed the upper stage of the Atlas V rocket that launched LRO into a crater on the moon’s south pole.

The resulting impact blew up significant amounts of water ice, suggesting that this resource is abundant in the polar regions of the moon.

The Falcon 9 scenario targets a relatively dull (by comparison) part of the moon, Gray wrote. But its impact could still yield interesting information about lunar geology.

“We know the mass of an empty Falcon 9 booster [about 4 tons] and that it will reach 2.58 km/s [5,700 mph, or 9,290 kph]; the known momentum and energy of the object creating the crater should help calibrate the crater size versus energy function,” Gray wrote.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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