Kablam! Three Tons of Space Junk Set to Collide With Earth’s Moon

© REUTERS / Aly SongThe moon is seen during a partial lunar eclipse in Shanghai January 1, 2010
The moon is seen during a partial lunar eclipse in Shanghai January 1, 2010 - Sputnik International, 1920, 03.03.2022
The moon is about to be severely impacted by 3 tonnes of space junk that should leave an enormous 33 to 66-foot crater on its already heavily-pockmarked surface. It’s speculated the space junk belongs to the Chinese government, but Beijing has refused to claim the celestial litter.
Three tonnes of space junk is hurtling towards the moon at approximately 5,800 miles per hour (MPH), and the collision course will leave a crater large enough to fit several tractor-trailers.
Bill Gray, who is the creator of the Guide astronomy software used to track space junk, asteroids, minor planets and comets, initially suggested the debris belonged to aerospace company SpaceX. He first identified the projected crash in January, believing it to belong to an upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon rocket from a 2015 launch.
Gray corrected himself a month later, though, and observed that it was the property of the Chinese government. The astronomer has since claimed the space junk is the third stage of a Chinese rocket used to send a test sample to and back from the moon in 2014.
The US Space Command, of the United States Department of Defense, confirmed on Tuesday that the Chinese upper stage from the 2014 lunar mission never deorbited; however, the agency did not confirm that this same object is destined to crash into the moon.
“I’ve become a little bit more cautious of such matters. But I really just don’t see any way it could be anything else,” noted Gray, who is confident of his conclusions. “I had been hoping for something (significant) to hit the moon for a long time. Ideally, it would have hit on the near side of the moon at some point where we could actually see it.”
A team from the University of Arizona has also identified the Chinese Long March rocket segment during telescope observations in which they recognized the light reflecting off of its paint.
Both Gray and fellow astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell agree that regardless of ownership, the effects of the collision will be the same.
“It’s not a SpaceX problem, nor is it a China problem. Nobody is particularly careful about what they do with junk at this sort of orbit,” Gray said.
McDowell, who serves as an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics further commented: “The effect will be the same. It’ll leave yet another small crater on the moon.”
The moon has no atmosphere, so it’s defenseless against asteroids and comets. It has 9,137 craters, however, of which only 1,675 have been dated. Now, with debris leftover from human involvement in space, the possibility of new craters being inflicted on the moon’s surface increases.
Space debris can include anything from dead satellites to the remains of missiles fired at objects in space, or even to wandering nuts and bolts. These objects can collide with working satellites or manned spacecraft, resulting in damage and even more space debris.
In 2019, a reported 23,000 man-made fragments with a diameter of or larger than 4 inches were orbiting our planet. An additional 500,000 pieces flying within 1,250 miles of Earth’s surface are said to be between 0.4 inches and 4 inches in diameter, making them much more difficult to track.
While most of the debris may be small, their speed is faster than a bullet (22,300 mph) causing likely damage or deadly impact on the items they collide with, such as spacecraft, satellites, telescopes, and even the moon.
Since the start of the Space Age in the late 1950s, countries around the world have launched over 4,700 space-related missions, leaving behind both a legacy in human technological achievement, as well as a trail of orbiting garbage.
Space debris will only continue to multiply over the coming centuries.
But debris located in deep space is much more difficult to track, says McDowell, and the moon’s gravity can alter an object’s trajectory, leaving astrophysicists unaware. He says there is no available database to track deep space litter, except what he, Gray, and a couple of others have been able to jury-rig.
“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,” McDowell said. “Right now there’s no one, just a few fans in their spare time.”
How does humanity clean up its mess? Thus far some pretty bizarre ideas have been proposed to clean up all the space junk. JAXA, Japan’s space agency, is testing an electronic space whip half a mile long that would be used to grab at the larger pieces of space debris to dispose of them by knocking them out of orbit so that they can burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
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