March 4 Rocket Impact: Moon Or Kaboom?


Lauren Schulz, Staff Writer

In February of 2015, SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 rocket into space, as part of their mission to send a climate observation satellite 930,000 miles from Earth. And, nearly six years later, the fuelless, 4.4-ton rocket upper-stage’s chaotic orbit has brought it closer than ever—in direct line-of-sight of the moon.

Bill Gray, a developer of software that tracks near-Earth objects, has estimated that the rocket is set for impact somewhere along the moon’s equator on the far side, traveling at speeds of 5,771 mph, and will most likely occur on March 4. “In a Jan. 21 blog post,” states Live Science, “Gray noted that the space junk had “made a close lunar flyby on January 5” but is set for “a certain impact at March 4.””

“It seems kind of spooky,” starts Kafei Vierya-Gonzalez, a junior and a space enthusiast, after looking into the situation, “but I don’t think it’s going to do much to us.”

The original intent of the rocket was to be a part of SpaceX’s first deep-space mission. “The company launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a satellite designed to monitor both solar storms and Earth’s climate, to a gravitationally stable Lagrange point between the sun and Earth,” Live Science explains. “After completing its task, the rocket’s second stage ran out of fuel and began tumbling around Earth and the moon in an unpredictable orbit.”

Considering how this may affect humanity and the Earth, Kafei says: “It may end up affecting the tides, just by a bit, if it hits us that hard. But, for the most part, we will likely be fine.” 

Harvard University astrophysicist, Jonathan McDowell, not only confirmed the rocket’s friendly-greetings with the moon and the date but also stated that while the impact would be “interesting,” it was, in fact, “not a big deal.”

Several factors are at play for not only determining the trajectory of the rocket, but also it’s ultimate resting place and impact site on the moon. Because of these factors, rough guesses and estimations can only be made to determine where the rocket is heading and where it will land. The reason why determining the rocket’s path and landing site is so important–and a lot of focus has been pushed onto and stressed on this–is that this accidental impact will enable scientists and researchers alike to be able to study the moon, its contents, or even the impact crater more in-depth. “A good prediction of where the space litter will land is important because it could enable satellites currently orbiting the moon, such as NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft, to observe the moon’s subsurface contents revealed by the impact crater, or even observe the impact itself,” Life Science states.

In any case, the impact will likely occur on the side of the moon that faces away from Earth and will not likely be viewable from the Earth itself. However, given the multitude of satellites and machinery already present orbiting the Earth, space organizations like NASA will likely be able to capture the impact, from multiple angles via their satellites, and give the public a fascinating glimpse into what they would have never seen before decades ago–a brief glimpse of the ever-revolving chaos of the solar system, the galaxy, and space itself.

Jokingly adding on his previous points, Kafei adds: “Hope we can get out of class during it, though. [It] would be cool to see, but I definitely wouldn’t mind being out of class for a while!”