The man in the moon is about to get a scar on his face, though you won’t see it when you gaze up at the night sky. A 3-ton piece of space debris — likely the third stage of a Chinese rocket sent up in 2014, though that’s in dispute — will crash into the moon Friday at a speed of 5,800 mph or so. It will leave a mark somewhere between 33 and 66 feet wide, and it will take weeks or even months for satellite imagery to confirm the collision.
Mathematician, physicist, and amateur asteroid tracker Bill Gray initially identified the debris as the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon rocket launched in 2015, but after a closer look from an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Gray concluded it came from a Chinese lunar test launch. Chinese officials say the stage in question burned up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. U.S. Space Command officials say it never left orbit.
“I’ve become a little bit more cautious of such matters,” Gray told the Associated Press. “But I really just don’t see any way it could be anything else.”
“It’s not a SpaceX problem, nor is it a China problem. Nobody is particularly careful about what they do with junk at this sort of orbit.”
Whatever the debris’ provenance, Gray and other observers hoped to catch a glimpse of an impact crater being made on the moon, but they won’t get that chance.
“I had been hoping for something (significant) to hit the moon for a long time. Ideally, it would have hit on the near side of the moon at some point where we could actually see it,” Gray said.
Space is littered with debris, and there’s not much international legislation in effect to do much about the growing problem, though some resolutions are in the works.
“We are now in an era where many countries and private companies are putting stuff in deep space, so it’s time to start to keep track of it,” Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told the Associated Press. “Right now, there’s no one, just a few fans in their spare time.”