SpaceX and our space junk problem

It’s been a month of ups and downs for SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket ship, and the satellite internet company.

Bad news: A solar storm sent 40 of its Starlink satellites plummeting back to Earth. They would burn in the Earth’s atmosphere, costing the company as much as $100 million and raising new doubts about Musk’s grand plans for satellite internet on top of those recently expressed by China and NASA. Good news? All belong to those, that report that a SpaceX rocket is about to crash into the moon is false: The rocket belongs to someone else.

Highlighting error the growing problem of all that rubbish we, as a planet, shoot into space and how we deal with it (or not, as the case may be). Not everything we send up goes down, and some of it is lost. That’s especially true when it leaves Earth’s orbit because there’s no one officially monitoring our space class out there. Basically, we’re leaving it to a handful of dedicated astronomers who do it as a hobby.

One of those astronomers was Bill Gray. He developed software called Project Pluto, used to track objects in space. A few weeks ago, Mr announced that part of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will crash into the moon on March 4. More news stories follow (disasters involving Musk tend to attract headlines), but any hope There is no way that Musk will be knocked down a peg that crashed back to Earth a few days ago. Gray claims he made a mistake: The unruly object could very well be the booster for China’s Chang’e 5-T1 rocketwas launched in 2014.

Perhaps surprisingly, this case of misidentification is not difficult to make, even for the relatively few people who keep track of these things. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explains that it is difficult to determine the exact path of an uncontrollable object through space. There are many variables that can change an object’s trajectory, and even a small change adds up over time and distance.

Also – and this is the heart of the matter – we don’t really track these anyway.

We have a good idea of ​​what is orbiting the Earth, especially if those objects are sending signals back to us or if they are in a position that could endanger anything or anything. anyone in Earth’s orbit (or on Earth itself). And we know important science like space telescope, deep space weather satelliteand probe We.

But a piece of space debris – an abandoned rocket stage, say – floating around Earth’s orbit is more curious than worrying. Since there aren’t any rules for keeping track of what we launch into deep space, the only information we may have to go on is launch data and observations from astronomers, who came across it by chance en route across the night sky, assuming it was uniformly close enough to be seen.

Gray told the New York Times. He orbit calculation of an object first observed in March 2015 and discovered that it passed by the moon about a month earlier. That fits with what he believes is the flight path of a Recent SpaceX launchso Gray was pretty sure the object was a rocket booster that was scrapped from that launch.

Only after he announced that a SpaceX rocket was going to crash into the moon did he realize that it wasn’t launched towards the moon at all, so it was likely not an object. But the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 rocket launched in October 2014 was sent toward the moon, making it the new (and current) suspect. Also useful, says McDowell: An amateur radio satellite from Luxembourg hitchhike on that booster, providing orbital data for several days. When the SpaceX rocket was ruled out, they realized they might be looking at a Chinese rocket.

If all this sounds like a worrying amount of guesswork, fortunately, when it comes to things that could crash into Earth, we a little more diligent. Personal interests, along with knowledge of what likely to happen for the dinosaurs, is a powerful motivator. That’s why, since 1998, NASA has operated Center for Near-Earth Object Research, tracking potentially dangerous objects so we can identify and, if necessary, prevent collisions that would otherwise be catastrophic. More specifically, the asteroid and comet tracking center is large enough and will pass close enough to our planet – less than 4.6 million miles is considered “close” – to pose a potential threat. for it.

Additionally, NASA told Recode that it’s really in the business of tracking space debris only if that debris could endanger NASA property. The Center for Near-Earth Object Research eventually helped figure out to whom the rocket likely belonged, but that was only in response to its attention on impending death. The US Space Force also monitors orbital debris but did not respond to a request for comment on whether the force tracks debris in lunar orbit.

“Things over, for example, going up 100,000 km? The Space Force doesn’t care,” McDowell said. “That’s a small enough amount of traffic. There’s really no danger of them bumping into each other. “

This is not the first time a man-made object has crashed into the moon. While deliberately crashing objects into planets seems like the fictional realm of a James Bond villain, Cobra Commanderor George Meliès, it happened. Last November, NASA launches rocket into an asteroid to see if we could push the asteroid off course if an asteroid threatened to hit Earth. And, in 2009, NASA Throw a rocket into a lunar crater to see if there’s water in the crater. And there are a number of other missions to different planets from many countries that end with spacecraft crashing into the bodies they are orbiting around after running out of fuel or completing their missions.

Unintentional accidents are rarer, but we had a fairly recent example in 2019, when an Israeli company’s moon mission ended with the lander crashing, possibly spilling on its surface. thousands of tardigrades was along the trip. Professor. Before that, we did not have an accidental moon landing since 1971. At least, not one that we know of.

“This is probably not the first time this has happened,” McDowell said. “This is just the first time we’ve noticed that.”

What we think now is that the Chang’e 5-T1 booster is set to hit the moon around 7:30 a.m. on March 4. If you were hoping to see it, you’re out of luck. : It will hit the far side of the moon, which means we won’t be able to see it now or forever. The rotation of the moon is locked to the Earth, so we always see the same side of it. But it is possible that some objects in the Moon’s orbit will receive images of the crater it left behind. NASA told Recode that its lunar orbiter will not be in a position to see the impact, but it will search for the crater. It may take “weeks or months” to find it.

McDowell said he hopes this incident will make the public aware of the gaps in our knowledge when it comes to man-made objects floating in deep space, wherever they are. He wants to see an international database of all the launches with their orbits, as well as sponsor at least one person to track them. That will be especially important in the coming decades as lunar traffic grows and so will the number of states and private companies that create it. Now we have the opportunity to prepare for the next part.

“It’s getting confusing out there. Let’s reorganize,” McDowell said.

As for the location of the original SpaceX rocket believed to be the cause of the upcoming moon crash? We can only guess at it. Maybe we’ll see it again someday, but nobody seems to know for sure.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one! SpaceX and our space junk problem

Fry Electronics Team

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