While SpaceX has nailed the process of landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back on terra firma, the second stage is left to burn up in the atmosphere as it falls back to Earth. At least, that’s what usually happens.
A mission launched by SpaceX in 2015 to send the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory into a distant orbit completed all of the necessary deployment steps, but then it went a bit awry, according to an Ars Technica report.
A lack of fuel prevented the second-stage booster from reaching Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to tumble through space in a chaotic orbit. But its erratic seven-year voyage looks set to end abruptly in early March when the four-ton booster slams into the moon at 5,000 mph.
After crunching all of the available data, sky-watcher Bill Gray, who also develops software that tracks near-Earth objects, has concluded that the Falcon 9’s out-of-control second stage will impact the lunar surface on March 4, most likely on the far side.
Commenting on the accuracy of the predicted impact date, Gray wrote on his website: “If this were a rock, I’d be 100% certain … But space junk can be a little tricky.”
He added: “I have a fairly complete mathematical model of what the Earth, moon, sun, and planets are doing and how their gravity is affecting the object. I have a rough idea of how much sunlight is pushing outward on the object, gently pushing it away from the sun. This usually enables me to make predictions with a good bit of confidence.”
Gray said he’s hoping to calculate the impact location as precisely as possible in the hope that NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar orbiter will be able to photograph the crash site for further study.
The event will mark the first time for a man-made object to unintentionally crash onto the lunar surface. A deliberate impact took place in 2009 when a NASA Centaur rocket and accompanying probe were sent hurtling toward the moon in a mission aimed at locating water on Earth’s nearest neighbor.
SpaceX is currently developing landing hardware for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions that will see the first crewed lunar landing in five decades. However, next month’s collision means a piece of SpaceX kit will be arriving at the moon rather earlier than expected.