Leftover Rocket Impacts Moon at 5,800MPH

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Graphic by Jonathon Carmona for El Paisano Media

As a 3 ton piece of rocket hits our moon, a question arises. Should researchers and scientists focus on cleaning up space junk? An answer may come soon.

As of March 4 at 4:25a.m., a leftover piece of a space rocket has been predicted to have made an impact on the Moon’s surface. 

Rocket Power

The 3-ton piece of a rocket was traveling at 5,800 mph upon impact. Scientists predicted the “space junk” would leave a crater on the lunar far side. Our grounded telescopes were not able to see the event as the far side is out of our view. 

The satellites closest to the point of impact, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-2, are also not in a position to witness the event. NASA has promised to find the resulting crater but the process could take weeks or even months.  

They predict the crater left behind will be about 33 ft. to 66 ft. (10 – 20 meters) across. The impact will also cause moon dust to kick up and fly across hundreds of miles of the Moon’s surface. The crater should be located near the naturally-formed Hertzsprung Crater. This collision is the first known unintentional lunar collision caused by something human’s left behind. 

The Pointing of Fingers

Astronomer and data scientist Bill Gray at first calculated that the space junk was part of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. While SpaceX was ready to accept all blame, newer discoveries were made. Later findings put the blame on China’s Long March 3C rocket, the piece being part of the rocket’s upper stage. China has since denied these claims, stating the upper stage had re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. Gray has doubled down on his calculations and is sure that the piece is from China’s rocket. 

Bill Gray runs the Pluto Project program that tracks faraway space objects. There is no official agency that tracks leftover space junk. The benefits from this type of work are limited and often not seen as worth the time. This means the job falls onto volunteers who watch and track the skies in their free time. Volunteers such as 63-year-old Peter Birtwhistle had spotted the rocket heading towards a lunar collision. He first spotted a tiny dot of light moving across the sky using his telescope at home in Newbury, England. He then captured and sent pictures to Bill Gray who then began to assess the situation. 

Doing Better as a Society

No one will ever really know whose rocket it was, tracking space debris has not been an important element that scientists focus on. Space junk is hardware sent from Earth into space that didn’t have enough fuel to return back. Some space junk is closer to Earth, almost right above the planet, but some are deeper into space and too far from Earth’s atmosphere. The European Space Agency says there are about 36,500 pieces of space junk out there that are at least 10 cm in size. 

There is hope that space debris tracking will start to become a priority as humans increase their space-traveling activity. There is no telling when a piece of a rocket will compromise a satellite. Space junk can be unpredictable as the gravitational pull changes the farther or closer the junk is to Earth and even our Moon. Our Moon also has no atmosphere, thus no real defense against any incoming damage. Although it is not a real problem at the moment, if we ever want to travel beyond our limits, one of the steps will be how to avoid all the junk in our way.