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Rocket junk predicted to crash into moon may not be SpaceX’s fault

A gibbous moon shines early Sunday, June 28, 2015 as a SpaceX, Falcon9 rocket sits at Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The rocket stage predicted to hit the moon this March may not actually be SpaceX property.

At 7:25 a.m. March 4 a rocket booster is expected to crash onto the far side of the moon, according to a calculated prediction made by astronomer Bill Gray in 2015. However, on Saturday, Gray corrected his original statement, which speculated the piece of rocketry was the second stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

However, on Saturday, Gray posted a correction suggesting the object is actually the booster for China’s Chang’e 5-T1 lunar mission.

“In hindsight, I should have noticed some odd things about (the object’s) orbit,” Gray said.

On the evening Feb. 11 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was third attempt to launch the rocket, which had been previously delayed twice due to weather. On board was NASA’s DSCOVR — a satellite designed to serve as an early-warning system for potentially dangerous solar storms.

“The Falcon takes flight, propelling the Deep Space Climate Observatory on a million-mile journey to protect our planet Earth,” declared NASA commentator Michael Curie in 2015.

A month later, the Catalina Sky Survey, which operates out of the University of Arizona, found a possible near-earth asteroid and posted it to its near-Earth-objects confirmation page. Visitors can comment on the survey and post results of their own astronomical findings. One Brazilian astronomer noted that the object was orbiting Earth, not the sun.

This suggested the object was man-made.

That’s when Gray got involved.

He saw the comment and responded with thoughts of how the object could be DSCOVR or some bit of hardware associated with it. At first, Gray had trouble supporting the idea since he couldn’t find a lot of data regarding DSCOVR’s trajectory. Eventually, he found information that suggested the object had gone past the moon two days after DSCOVR’s launch. The object’s brightness and speed supported his DSCOVR theory.

While the data wasn’t conclusive, Gray was confident in the object’s identity, and went onto predict the object’s crash into the moon next month.

Then, seven years later, Gray received an email from Jon Giorgini, a senior engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

On Saturday, Giorgini’s message pointed out that JPL’s Horizons system showed that the DSCOVR spacecraft’s trajectory did not go particularly close to the moon. It also noted “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.”

Acknowledging the oddity, Gray put on his detective hat and went looking for another rocket launch, speculating that there must’ve been another launch scheduled around the time of DSCOVER.

And there was.

On Oct. 23, 2014, China launched the Chang’e 5-T1 mission — an experimental robotic spacecraft used to conduct atmospheric re-entry tests.

The rocket’s booster was thought to have been lost.

However, Gray is now confident the object he’s been look at is Chang’e 5-T1 booster.

“In a sense, this remains ‘circumstantial’ evidence. But I would regard it as fairly convincing evidence, the sort where the jury would file out of the courtroom and come back in a few minutes with a conviction,” he said.

Although it does leave one question: where is the SpaceX booster?

The short answer, at this time, nobody probably knows.

Gray speculates the booster escaped Earth’s orbit and is now probably circling the Sun.

As for what is likely the Chang’e’s booster, it’s still expected to crash into the moon March 4 at 7:25 a.m. It will occur on the far side of the moon and out of sight.

That being the case, Gray is wild about the idea of space junk polluting Earth’s orbits or the surface of its closest neighbor. His hope is that SpaceX or any other space-faring entity may learn from this experience and keep track of their junk.

“Without exceptions that I know of, nobody has cared much about where high-altitude junk goes, to the point where I’m the only person keeping track of it, almost entirely in my spare time,” he said. “That said… if an outcome of this event is that some consideration goes into how high-altitude space junk is disposed of, I will not object at all.”


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