Incoming! SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket on Collision Course With the Moon

Mars Australe Lava Plain on Moon

A high-definition image of the Mars Australe lava plain on the Moon taken by Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter in November 2007. Credit: JAXA/NHK

Update as of February 15Additional analysis by, among others, citizen-scientist Bill Gray and colleagues at NASA’s JPL, now indicates that the object expected to impact the Moon is not the upper stage that delivered a previous US solar monitoring mission to the L1 Lagrange point.

The impact location remains within a few kilometers of the predicted spot on 4 March 2022, within a few seconds of 12:25 UTC.

This still-evolving finding underscores the need for enhanced space tracking, and greater data sharing between spacecraft operators, launch providers, and the astronomy and space surveillance communities.

The Moon is set to gain one more crater. A leftover SpaceX Falcon 9 upper stage will impact the lunar surface in early March, marking the first time that a human-made debris item unintentionally reaches our natural satellite.

In 2015 the Falcon 9 placed NOAA’s DSCOVR climate observatory around the L1 Lagrange point, one of five such gravitationally-stable points between Earth and the Sun. Having reached L1, around 1.5 million km from Earth, the mission’s upper stage ended up pointed away from Earth into interplanetary space.

DSCOVR on Falcon 9 Upper Stage

Artist’s impression of DSCOVR on the way to L1 on its Falcon 9 upper stage in 2015. Credit: SpaceX

This rendered a deorbit burn to dispose of it in our planet’s atmosphere impractical, while the upper stage also lacked sufficient velocity to escape the Earth-Moon system. Instead, it was left in a chaotic Sun-orbiting orbit near the two bodies.

Now credible public estimates forecast its impact with the Moon on March 4, 2022, at 12:25:39 UTC at a point on the lunar far side near the equator. Follow-up observations should sharpen the accuracy of the forecast, but the approximately 3 ton, 15 m long by 3 m wide upper stage is currently projected to hit at a speed about 2.58 km/s.

The Five Lagrange Points

There are locations around a planet’s orbit where the gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the Sun and planet interact to create a stable location, from where a spacecraft can reside with little effort from the operators on the ground to keep it in place. These points are known as Lagrangian or ‘L’ points, after the 18th century Italian astronomer and mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (born Giuseppe Luigi Lagrancia). Credit: ESA

Scientifically vital points in space

The European Ariane 5 that recently delivered the James Webb Space Telescope to its observing point flew a mirror trajectory to that of the Falcon 9 – but the good news is that its upper stage has already evaded a comparable fate thanks to a specifically developed and qualified maneuver.

Europe’s Ariane 5 delivered the James Webb Space Telescope to L2, the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point ‘behind’ instead of in ‘front of’ our planet – but after separating from Webb the upper stage used all its remaining fuel to escape the Earth-Moon system entirely, putting it into a stable heliocentric orbit.

View Back to Earth From DSCOVR’s Upper Stage

Looking back to Earth from DSCOVR’s Falcon 9 upper stage on the way to L1. Just before sunset at 6:03pm ET on February 11, 2015, Falcon 9 lifted off from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite on SpaceX’s first deep-space mission. Credit: SpaceX

A brief history of human-made Moon impacts

Human-made objects have intentionally impacted the Moon before, starting as early as the 1950s, including Apollo upper stages used to induce ‘moonquakes’ for surface seismometers.

In 2009 NASA crashed its LCROSS mission into the Moon, revealing water in the resulting debris plume, with the LADEE spacecraft doing the same on the lunar farside in 2013. ESA’s Smart-1 spacecraft was crashed into the Moon in 2006, the subject of a worldwide observing campaign.

NASA’s LCROSS Impacting the Moon

In 2009 NASA’s LCROSS mission deployed a Centaur upper stage to intentionally impact the Moon before going on to crash into the lunar surface itself. The resulting debris plumes were observed from Earth, revealing water ice and other volatiles. Credit: NASA

“This forthcoming Falcon 9 impact is a little beyond our usual area of interest, because we are mainly focused on the debris population in highly-trafficked low-Earth orbits, up to 2000 km altitude, as well as geosynchronous orbits around 35 000 km away,” explains Tim Flohrer of ESA’s Space Debris Office.

“Our colleagues in the ESA Planetary Defence Office peer further into space, however. They use telescopes around the globe to track Near-Earth asteroids, and sometimes observe human-made objects as well. Extending our own remit into the ‘cislunar’ space between Earth and the Moon has been discussed, due to the increasing use of the scientifically vital Sun-Earth Lagrange points in coming years.”

SMART-1 Lunar Observations

This illustration shows ESA’s SMART-1 spacecraft making scientific observations in orbit around the Moon. SMART-1 was launched in September 2003 and will conclude its mission through a small lunar impact on September 3, 2006. Credit: ESA – C. Carreau

Detlef Koschny, heading ESA’s Planetary Defence Office, adds: “We use telescopic observations to pinpoint the orbits, mainly of natural objects in the space surrounding Earth. Occasionally, we also pick up man-made objects far away from the Earth, such as lunar exploration spacecraft remnants, and objects returning from Lagrange points.”

Webb’s Journey to L2

Webb will orbit the second Lagrange point (L2), 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the direction away from the Sun. There, its sunshield can always block light and heat from both the Sun and Earth from reaching its telescope and instruments. L2 is not a fixed point, but follows Earth around the Sun. Credit: ESA

For international spacefarers, no clear guidelines exist at the moment to regulate the disposal at end of life for spacecraft or spent upper stages sent to Lagrange points. Potentially crashing into the Moon or returning and burning up in Earth’s atmosphere have so far been the most straightforward default options.

“The upcoming Falcon 9 lunar impact illustrates well the need for a comprehensive regulatory regime in space, not only for the economically crucial orbits around Earth but also applying to the Moon,” says Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Safety Program.

Ariane 6 and Vega-C

Artist’s view of Ariane 6 and Vega-C. Credit: ESA – D. Ducros

“It would take international consensus to establish effective regulations, but Europe can certainly lead the way.”

All the launchers developed by ESA during the last decade – Vega, Ariane 6 and Vega C – incorporate a built-in reignition capability, which ensures the safe return to Earth for atmospheric burn-up of their upper stages.

Lunar Impact Detection

Since March 2017, the NELIOTA project has been monitoring the dark side of the Moon for flashes of light caused by tiny pieces of rock striking the Moon’s surface. This sequence of 12 consecutive frames shows a bright flash detected on 4 frames during observations on 1 March 2017. The red arrows point to the location of the impact flash, near the edge of the frame. Credit: NELIOTA project

Assessing lunar impact risk

Space rocks hit the Moon all the time. Researchers are interested in quantifying the frequency of these natural lunar impacts. Using a system developed through an ESA contract, the Greek NELIOTA project (Near-Earth object Lunar Impacts and Optical TrAnsients) detects flashes of light caused by small bodies striking the Moon’s surface, particularly across its shadowed face. NELIOTA can determine the temperature of these impact flashes as well as their brightness. From this, the impacting mass can be estimated.

Kryoneri Observatory

The Kryoneri Observatory – the world’s largest eye on the Moon. Credit: Theofanis Matsopoulos

ESA’s Space Safety program is interested in this research as a way of assessing the number of incoming objects ranging in size from tens of centimeters to meters across. This is useful because the precise number of objects in this range is not known very well.

This research might also be valuable for future lunar colonists. One of the dangers they might face is small meteoroids doing damage to their infrastructure – NELIOTA results are helping to quantify the danger. Without an atmosphere to burn up such bodies, it is likely that future permanent lunar structures will be underground, to provide shielding against impacts as well as space radiation.

2 Comments on "Incoming! SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket on Collision Course With the Moon"

  1. As I have said previously, there have been other unintentional impacts by Israel and India. Is two minutes of basic research that hard?

  2. No, the object was not a Falcon 9 upper stage, but rather a Chinese rocket. This has been known for some time. Indeed the same author has written about it.
    Why has this article not been updated properly? Sloppy journalism.

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