Falcon 9 won't slam into the moon, but something else will

The new culprit may be part of a Chinese rocket launched in 2014.
Fabienne Lang

SpaceX is no longer going to (accidentally) punch the moon. Instead, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) will — so to speak.

News that the upper stage of one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets is going to slam into the moon on March 4 has been circulating far and wide. The information first came to light thanks to a post from Bill Gray, the creator of the Project Pluto software that tracks near-Earth objects.

It now turns out that it's likely a part of an old Chinese rocket that will hit the moon. With all the space junk floating about, it's understandable that some information got twisted.

The backstory & new information

Through their initial observations in 2015, Gray and other astronomers were under the impression that an unidentified object in the sky was headed for impact towards the moon, and that that impact would happen on March 4, 2022. The prime suspect was the second stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which had been used for NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory mission, or DSCOVR, in 2015.

Given March 4, 2022 is looming closer and closer, it's easy to see why this news has garnered so much attention lately. So much so, in fact, that Jon Giorgini at NASA's JPL reached out to Gray to explain "It would be a little strange if the second stage went right past the moon, while DSCOVR was in another part of the sky. There's always some separation, but this was suspiciously large," per Gray's post on PlutoProject.

Upon closer evaluation, it became clear to Gray and Giorgini that the looming object was instead 2014-065B, the booster for the Chinese Chang'e 5-T1 lunar mission. Gray posted an update on his site on Saturday, February 12.

The collision is still on course to happen on March 4 at 12:25 UTC (7:25 AM EST), within a few seconds of that predicted time.

"In hindsight, I should have noticed some odd things about WE0913A's orbit. Assuming no maneuvers, it would have been in a somewhat odd orbit around the earth before the lunar flyby. At its highest point, it would be near the moon's orbit; at its lowest (perigee), about a third of that distance. I'd have expected the perigee to be near the earth's surface. The perigee seemed quite high," Gray explains his previous mistake.

After looking for other, similar launches that occurred around the same time, Gray found the Chang'e 5-T1 mission, which launched at 18:00 UTC on 2014 October 23. 

It turns out the booster did a close lunar flyby on October 28, 2014, leaving it as the most accurate option for a lunar impact next month.

As Gray himself puts it, it's all still "circumstantial evidence", but it certainly looks like it's a more accurate prediction of what will happen in early March, 2022.

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