An out-of-control rocket is forecast to crash on March 4; it should be traveling at a brisk 5,770 mph when it hits the ground. But unlike previous out-of-control rockets from Russia and China in recent months, this Earth-launched rocket is due to crash into the Moon. It was previously thought that the out-of-control rocket heading to the Moon was a SpaceX second stage rocket. However, based on updated information and analysis shared by an astronomer that tracks near-Earth objects, it turns out the rocket is most likely a Chinese Long March 3C rocket that successfully launched the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission to the Moon on October 23, 2014.
Astronomer Bill Gray that tracks such objects for the the Project Pluto software originally assumed that the errant rocket visible on telescopes on Earth was from a February 11, 2015 SpaceX launch. On that rocket, SpaceX sent the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) into space atop its Falcon 9 reusable rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The satellite is designed to serve as an early-warning system for solar storms, some of which can damage electrical and communications systems on Earth, astronauts in near-Earth orbit, and satellites that orbit around the Earth.
The first stage was scheduled to return to Earth and land on a SpaceX drone barge parked in the Atlantic. However, due to bad weather at sea, SpaceX canceled that landing, instead bringing the first stage back into the ocean at a somewhat later time. SpaceX founder Elon Musk had Tweeted at the time, “Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target and nicely vertical!”
But the Falcon 9’s second stage rocket which successfully put the DSCOVR rocket in its appropriate transfer orbit lacked enough fuel to return and burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The spent rocket also lacks the energy required to escape the gravity created by both the Earth and Moon; as such, it’s been falling about in a chaotic orbit for the last almost-7 years. However, that 8,800 pound rocket isn’t expected to get to close to the Moon now.
Gray updated the Project Pluto website to reflect that it is now likely the out-of-control rocket headed to the Moon is Chinese. “We now have good evidence that it is actually 2014-065B, the booster for the Chang’e 5-T1 lunar mission,” Gray wrote. He added, “It will, however, still hit the moon within a few kilometers of the predicted spot on 2022 March 4 at 12:25 UTC, within a few seconds of the predicted time.”
While he and other astronomers believe it is in fact the booster for the Chinese lunar mission, they aren’t 100% certain. China and their space program has offered no comment on this rocket. Without that confirmation, Gray calls forecasts and guesses by astronomers as “circumstantial evidence” without that solid proof.
Regardless of the origin of the rocket, scientists are eager to see what happens when something as heavy as this out-of-control rocket smashes into the Moon; this event is considered the first time a spacecraft has unintentionally crashed into the Moon. Current forecasts by astronomers suggest the rocket will crash into the middle of the “dark side” of the Moon. While the impact won’t be visible on Earth, Moon-orbiting spacecraft such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft could capture the unique crash. Seeing what kind of matter and debris ejects up out of the ground from the Moon could provide insights to scientists on Earth interested in understanding the geology of the Earth’s rocky neighbor.
And where is the SpaceX booster used for DSCOVR heading? Gray wrote on the Project Pluto website, “That’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer. But I strongly suspect that nobody does.”