Rocket debris set to crash into moon at 5,000mph 'within hours' and carve 60ft crater

4 March 2022, 10:38

The piece of rocket, originally thought to be SpaceX, will hit the moon just after midday
The piece of rocket, originally thought to be SpaceX, will hit the moon just after midday. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

A discarded piece of rocket hurtling through space is set to crash into the moon within hours, according to scientists.

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The collision was first predicted in January, with experts projecting that the piece of space junk that has ben hurtling through space for seven years was on course to hit the moon in March.

And now that day has come, with scientists saying the three-tonne piece of rocket will hit the moon at 12.25pm on Friday.

The object, which is flying through space at 5,800mph hour, is expected to leave a crater of up to 66ft wide - big enough to fit several huge lorries.

It is also set to send moon dust flying hundreds of miles across the barren, pockmarked surface.

It may take weeks, even months, to confirm the impact through satellite images.

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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.

The rocket part was first spotted in March 2015, and in January asteroid tracker Bill Gray identified the collision course.

Astronomers first thought the rocket was launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX programme - and SpaceX accepted responsibility.

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.

Mr Gray said it was likely to be the third stage of a Chinese rocket that sent a test sample capsule to the moon and back in 2014.

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But China have denied that, saying the upper stage had re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up.

But there were two Chinese missions with similar designations - the test flight and 2020's lunar sample return mission - and US observers believe the two are getting mixed up.

The US Space Command, which tracks lower space junk, confirmed Tuesday that the Chinese upper stage from the 2014 lunar mission never deorbited, as previously indicated in its database.

But it could not confirm the country of origin for the object about to strike the moon.

"We focus on objects closer to the Earth," a spokesman said in a statement.

The moon already bears countless craters but with little to no real atmosphere, the moon is defenceless 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 is no erosion and so impact craters last forever.

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Tracking deep space mission leftovers like this is hard, said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

The moon's gravity can alter an object's path during flybys, creating uncertainty.

And there is no readily available database, he said, aside from the ones "cobbled together" by himself, Mr Gray and a couple of others.

"We are now in an era where many countries and private companies are putting stuff in deep space, so it's time to start to keep track of it," he said.

"Right now there's no-one, just a few fans in their spare time."