On March 4, a man-made piece of rocket Detritus will slam on the moon.
But it turns out that it is not, as previously reported in a number of reports by The New York Times, Elon Musk’s SpaceX that would be responsible for creating a crater on the lunar surface.
Instead, the cause is likely to be a piece of rocket launched by China’s space agency.
Last month, Project Pluto developer Bill Gray, a suite of astronomical software used to calculate the orbits of asteroids and comets, announced that the upper phase of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket intersects with the Moon’s orbit. . The rocket launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, in February for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 11, 2015.
Mr. Gray had been tracking this part of the rocket for years, and in early January, it passed within 6,000 miles of the lunar surface, and the moon’s gravity turned it on a path that it could crash into subsequent orbits.
Observations by amateur astronomers confirmed the impending impact inside the Hertzspring when the object turned back from Earth, an old, 315-mile-wide crater.
But an email Saturday from John Georgini, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, changed the story.
Mr. Georgini operates Horizons, an online database that can generate locations and orbits for about 1.2 million objects in the solar system, including about 200 spacecraft. A user of Horizons asked Mr. How accurate Georgini was that the object was part of a DSCOVR rocket. “It simply came to our notice then. Georgini said.
He noticed that the orbit was inconsistent with the route taken by DSCOVR, and contacted Mr. Gray.
“My initial idea was, I’m sure I did it right,” said Mr. Gray said Sunday.
But about a month after the launch of DSCOVR, he began digging through his old emails in March 2015 to remind them of when the object was first seen.
Almost every new object appearing in the sky is an asteroid, and that was the assumption for this object as well. It was named WE0913A.
However, it turns out that WE0913A was orbiting the Earth, not the Sun, which makes it more likely that it came from Earth. Mr. Gray hinted that he thought it might be part of a DSCOVR launching rocket. Further information confirms that WE0913A passed through the moon two days after the launch of the DSCOVR, which appears to confirm the identity.
Mr. Gray now realized that his mistake was thinking that the DSCOVR was launched on its way to the moon and using its gravity the spacecraft was taken to its destination about a million miles away from the earth where the spacecraft warns of incoming solar storms.
But, as Mr. Georgini pointed out that the DSCOVR was actually launched on a straight path that did not pass through the moon.
“I really wish I had reviewed it,” he said before making his January announcement. Gray said. “But yes, once John Georgini showed it, it became very clear that I really did it wrong.”
SpaceX, which did not respond to a request for comment, never said WE0913A was not its rocket stage. But he’s probably not tracking it. Most likely, the second phase of the Falcon 9 is pushed back into the atmosphere to burn out. In this case, the rocket needed all its propellants to deliver the DSCOVR to its distant destination.
However, the second phase, powerless and uncontrolled, was in orbit that was not likely to endanger any of the satellites, and people did not notice it.
“It would be nice if those who were putting this booster in high orbit would publicly disclose what they were putting there and where they were going instead of doing all this detective work,” he said. Gray said.
But if this was not a DSCOVR rocket, what was it? Mr. Gray was driven by other projections in previous months, focusing on those heading to the moon. “There’s not much in that series,” Mr. Gray said.
The top candidate was the Long March 3C rocket that launched China’s Chang’i-5T1 spacecraft in October. 23, 2014. The spacecraft orbited the moon and departed back to Earth, leaving a small return capsule that landed in Mongolia. It was a test leading to the Change-5 mission in 2020 that successfully removed the moon’s rocks and dust and brought them back to Earth for study.
A timely computer simulation of the WE0913A’s orbit indicates that it may have made a close-up lunar flyby in October. 28, five days after the Chinese launch.
In addition, the orbital data from the cubeset attached to the third phase of the Long March rocket is “very dead ringer” for WE0913A, Mr. Gray said. “It’s the kind of case you can probably take to a jury and get conviction.”
More observations this month have shifted the prediction when the object will strike the moon a few seconds and a few miles east. “It still looks like the same thing,” said Christophe DeMautis, an amateur astronomer in northeastern France.
Still there is no chance of that moon disappearing.
The disaster will occur at 7:26 a.m. Eastern time, but its effect will be on the far side of the moon, so it will be out of sight of Earth’s telescopes and satellites.
Regarding what happened to that Falcon 9 part, “We’re still trying to figure out where the second phase of DSCOVR could be,” Mr. Gray said.
The best guess is that it ended up in orbit around the sun instead of the earth, and it could still be outside. That would put him out of sight for now. An example is the return of pieces of an old rocket: in 2020, a newly discovered mystery item turned out to be part of a rocket launched in 1966 for a NASA robotic surveyor mission to the moon.