CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: The moon is about to get walloped by 3 tonnes of space junk, a punch that will carve out a crater that could fit several semitractor-trailers.
The leftover rocket will smash into the far side of the moon at 5,800 mph (9,300 kph) on Friday, away from telescopes’ prying eyes. It may take weeks, even months, to confirm the impact through satellite images.
It’s been tumbling haphazardly through space, experts believe. No matter whose it is, scientists expect the object to carve out a hole 33 feet to 66 feet (10 to 20 meters) across and send moon dust flying hundreds of miles (kilometers) across the barren, pockmarked surface.
Low-orbiting space junk is relatively easy to track. Objects launching deeper into space are unlikely to hit anything and these far-flung pieces are usually soon forgotten, except by a handful of observers who enjoy playing celestial detective on the side.
SpaceX originally took the rap for the upcoming lunar litter after asteroid tracker Bill Gray identified the collision course in January. He corrected himself a month later, saying the “mystery’’ object was not a SpaceX Falcon rocket upper stage from the 2015 launch of a deep space climate observatory for NASA.
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics supports Gray’s revised assessment, but notes: “The effect will be the same. It’ll leave yet another small crater on the moon.”
The moon already bears countless craters, ranging up to 1,600 miles (2,500 kilometers). With little to no real atmosphere, the moon is defenseless against the constant barrage of meteors and asteroids, and the occasional incoming spacecraft, including a few intentionally crashed for science’s sake. With no weather, there’s no erosion and so impact craters last forever.