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Missile debris will collide with the far side of the moon

Missile debris will collide with the far side of the moon

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The moon is about to be crushed with three tons of space junk, a punch that will dig a hole that can accommodate several tractor trailers.

The remaining rocket will crash into the far side of the moon on Friday at 9,300 km/h (5,800 mph), out of the prying eyes of telescopes. It can take weeks or even months to confirm the effect using satellite images.

Experts say it has stumbled randomly in space, ever since China launched it nearly a decade ago. But Chinese officials doubt it is theirs.

Regardless of its identity, scientists expect the object to drill a hole 33 feet to 66 feet (10 to 20 meters) in diameter and send moon dust hundreds of miles (kilometres) across the barren, blistered surface.

It is relatively easy to track space debris in low orbit. Objects blasting deep into space are unlikely to collide with anything, and these distant pieces are usually quickly forgotten, except for a handful of watchers who like to play the celestial detective on the side.

SpaceX originally took a rap for the next lunar garbage after asteroid tracker Bill Gray set the collision course in January. He corrected himself a month later, saying the “mysterious” object was not the upper stage of the SpaceX Falcon rocket from NASA’s 2015 Deep Space Climate Observatory launch.

Gray said it was likely the third stage of a Chinese rocket that sent a test sample capsule to the moon and in 2014. But Chinese ministry officials said the upper stage re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

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But there have been two Chinese missions with similar names – the test flight and the mission to return to the moon in 2020 – and US observers believe the two are linked.

The US Space Command, which is tracking low-lying space debris, confirmed Tuesday that China’s upper stage of the 2014 lunar mission never de-orbited, as previously reported in its database. But he could not confirm the country of origin of the object that was about to hit the moon.

“We are focused on things closest to Earth,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

Gray, the mathematician and physicist, said he’s now convinced it’s the Chinese missile.

“I’ve become a little more cautious about these issues,” he said. “But I really don’t see how anything else could be.”

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics supports Gray’s revised assessment, but notes that “the effect will be the same. And it will leave another small crater on the moon.”

The moon already has countless craters, some 1,600 miles (2,500 kilometers) long. With little or no real atmosphere, the Moon is defenseless against a constant barrage of meteors, asteroids, and the occasional incoming spacecraft, a few of which are deliberately crashed for the sake of science. Without weather, there is no erosion, so the effect of drilling lasts forever.

China has a lunar lander on the far side of the moon, but it will be too far from detecting Friday’s impact north of the equator. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will also be out of range. Chandrayaan-2, in orbit around the Moon in India, is unlikely to pass.

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“I had long hoped that something (significant) would hit the moon,” Gray said. Ideally, it would have hit the near side of the moon by the time we could see it.”

Installing SpaceX’s next hit for Elon Musk, Gray took another look after an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory questioned his claim. He is now “absolutely confident” that it is part of a Chinese rocket, relying not only on orbital tracking until its launch in 2014, but also on data from his amateur radio experiment.

The JPL Center for Near-Earth Object Studies supports Gray’s re-evaluation. A team from the University of Arizona also recently identified a Chinese Long March rocket’s cross-section of light reflected off the paint during telescope observations of the cap’s cylinder.

It is about 40 feet (12 m) long and 10 feet (3 m) in diameter, and somersaults every two to three minutes.

Gray said that SpaceX never contacted him to oppose his original claim. Nor are the Chinese.

“It’s not a SpaceX problem, it’s not a China problem,” Gray said. Nobody pays special attention to what they do with the litter in this kind of orbit.”

According to McDowell, tracking the remnants of deep space missions like this is tricky. The moon’s gravity can change the trajectory of an object during flight, creating uncertainty. McDowell noted that there are no readily available databases, other than those “bundled together” by himself, Gray and a few others.

“We are now at a time when many states and private companies are putting things into deep space, so it is time to start tracking them,” McDowell said. “At the moment there is no one there, just a few fans in their spare time.”

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Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang and Beijing-based video journalist Sam McNeill contributed to this report.

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