One of Elon Musk's SpaceX Rockets Is About to Crash Into the Moon

A Falcon 9 is destined for 'certain impact'.
Brad Bergan
The Falcon 9 launching in 2015 (left), and the moon (right).1, 2

SpaceX is going to (accidentally) punch the moon.

The second stage of one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets has tumbled its way into a terminal orbit with the moon, slated for impact on March 4, according to a post from Bill Gray, creator of a software program designed to track asteroids, comets, and other near-Earth objects (like launch debris).

While no lives, machines, or science missions will be harmed, the data suggests that the Falcon 9 is destined for "certain impact," said Gray in the post.

A collection of SpaceX firsts will punch the moon

The expired Falcon 9 rocket stage is slated to slam in the vicinity of the moon's equator on March 4, but sadly, our naked eyes won't see even the faintest of glimmers in the night sky. "For those asking: yes, an old Falcon 9 second stage left in high orbit in 2015 is going to hit the moon on March 4," tweeted the renowned astronomer Jonathan McDowell, of Harvard's Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "It's interesting, but not a big deal." It takes one glance at the surface of the moon to know that he's right: our lunar neighbor has been pummeled by space rocks and other objects since it first formed billions of years ago. And there's nothing we can do about it.

McDowell also said that "things left in cislunar orbit [orbits between the Earth and moon] are unstable — will eventually either hit the moon or Earth or get perturbed to solar orbit," in another tweet, confirming that this was not a deliberate impact of the moon. This specific Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on February 11, 2015, like many more after it. But this one was an exceptional launch, for two reasons: Firstly, it was the first from Elon Musk's firm to lift a U.S. research satellite, and was also the first to send something to interplanetary space, from the company.

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The now lunar-bound mission successfully placed the NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory, also called DSCOVR, into the first Lagrange point (L1), between the sun and Earth. the NOAA observatory uses advanced equipment to monitor solar winds in real-time — a crucial asset. DSCOVR came to rest in the gravitationally neutral region roughly 932,000 miles (1.5 million km) from the Earth, but the Falcon 9 rocket didn't share its trajectory. The "second stage was high enough that it did not have enough fuel to return to Earth's atmosphere" and "lacked the energy to escape the gravity of the Earth-Moon system, so it has been following a somewhat chaotic orbit" since 2015, according to an Ars Technica report.

But now, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket will smash into the surface of the moon at a velocity of 1.6 miles per second (2.58 km/s). Sadly, "the impact itself will have to go unobserved," said Gray in the post, since "the bulk of the moon is in the way, and even if it were on the near side, the impact occurs a couple of days after New Moon," which means it will happen in the darker region of the moon's phases. But no worries. With the rapidly climbing rate of space junk amid an accelerating second space race, random detritus from future space missions are sure to lob more chunks of metal at our nearest neighbor. It's only a matter of time.

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