Health & Science

Space junk will hit the Moon and create a crater

Space junk will hit the Moon and create a crater, but no one except a handful of fans cares about debris left by humans that far in outer space.

Moon's far side crater
Crater Daedalus on the lunar far side as seen from the Apollo 11 spacecraft in lunar orbit. The crater diameter is about 50 miles (80 km) | © NASA

The Moon is about to get hit by space rocket debris that will carve out a large crater.

Three tons of a leftover rocket will smash into the far side of the Moon at 9,300 km/h (5,800 mph) on March 4. Experts expect the object to carve out a hole 10 to 20 meters (33 feet to 66 feet) large.

The far side of the Moon is the side always on the opposite side of Earth. This side has many more craters than the side humans see from Earth.

The impact will therefore neither be visible with our own eyes nor from telescopes. It may take weeks, even months, to confirm the impact through satellite images. Chinese lunar lander on the Moon's far side will be too far away to detect Friday's impact just north of the equator. Other satellites from NASA or India will also be out of range.

With little to no real atmosphere, the Moon is defenseless against the constant barrage of meteors and asteroids, and the occasional incoming spacecraft, including a few intentionally crashed for science's sake. With no weather, there’s no erosion and so impact craters last forever.

NASA currently tracks over 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or "space junk". But many more too-small-to-track debris orbit hazardously in the near-Earth space environment.

Moon's far side
The far side of the Moon photographed by Apollo 16 in 1972. The far side is much more cratered than the near side which is covered with dark lunar maria. The likely explanation is that the far side crust is thicker, making it harder for molten material from the interior to flow to the surface and form the smooth maria. | © NASA

No country really cares about tracking this kind of space debris

However, objects launched deeper into space are usually forgotten as they are unlikely to hit anything near us. Except a handful of observers who enjoy tracking them for fun.

Bill Gray, a mathematician, physicist and amateur asteroid tracker identified the collision between the rocket, 12 meters (40 feet) long and 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter, and the Moon back in January.

He originally considered the projectile was from a SpaceX Falcon rocket but later revised his assessment saying it was likely the third stage of a Chinese rocket. Several other experts support his reassessment but nor SpaceX nor China contacted him to challenge his claim.

"Nobody is particularly careful about what they do with junk at this sort of orbit," Gray said.

And there's no available database, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics noted, aside from the ones made by himself, Gray and a couple others.

"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," McDowell said. "Right now there’s no one, just a few fans in their spare time."

"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.

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