The Falcon 9 booster is expected to collide with the Moon on March 4 when the rocket will explode as it makes contact and will create a small crater in the Moon’s surface. It was launched in 2015 to send a space weather satellite on a million-mile journey, but was abandoned in high orbit seven years ago because it did not have enough fuel to return towards Earth.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told BBC News it will be the first known uncontrolled rocket collision with the Moon. Professor McDowell hopes the effects will be minor, and claims other space junk may have collided with the Moon before but “gone unnoticed”.
Since 2015 the rocket has been pulled by different gravitational forces of the Earth, Moon and Sun, making its path somewhat “chaotic”, according to Professor McDowell.
“It’s been dead – just following the laws of gravity. Over the decades there have been maybe 50 large objects that we’ve totally lost track of. This may have happened a bunch of times before, we just didn’t notice. This would be the first confirmed case.
“It’s basically a four-tonne empty metal tank, with a rocket engine on the back. And so if you imagine throwing that at a rock at 5,000 miles an hour, it’s not going to be happy.”
In 2009, Professor McDowell and other astronomers performed an experiment in which a similar-sized rocket crashed into the Moon.
Sensors gathered evidence of the collision so they could study the crater, meaning scientists are unlikely to learn anything new from this crash.
But Professor McDowell warned that there are real dangers to space debris left to drift and crash.
He added: “If we get into the future where there are cities and bases on the Moon, we want to know what’s out there. It’s much easier to get that organised when there is slow traffic in space, rather than waiting until it’s a problem.”
The Falcon 9 Booster rocket was part of Mr Musk’s space exploration programme SpaceX, a commercial company that ultimately aims to get humans living on other planets like Mars.
Mr Musk said: “I think it is important for humanity to become a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanet species, and it’s going to take a lot of resources to build a city on Mars.
“I want to be able to contribute as much as possible to the city on Mars. That means just a lot of capital.”
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Falcon 9’s collision course was identified by journalist Eric Berger on the space website Ars Technica and by data analyst Bill Gray in his blog.
Over 26,000 human-made objects orbit Earth, the majority of which no longer work. Only around 3,500 are working satellites that have some purpose.
Aerospace engineer Professor Moriba Jah has identified a ring of large rocket bodies that have been in space for decades and are “ticking time bombs” which will, at some point, explode into tens of thousands of pieces.
If space debris hits working satellites, things like GPS, financial transactions, and weather warnings could completely shut down.
Professor Moriba Jah claims that there are 200 “super-spreader” debris collisions on course to crash, belonging to three different countries, which could have a “significant impact on humanity”.
He is calling on countries around the world to invest in clearing space junk before a major collision occurs – but in the meantime, Mr Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and other companies continue to send more and more space objects into orbit.
There’s a risk this space debris could collide with functioning satellites, which provide vital services like GPS and weather warnings.
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On July 11 Sir Richard Branson, age 70, made history by becoming the first billionaire in space at a reported cost of $841million, while Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin’s spaceship launched just nine days later at an estimated cost of $5.5billion.
Critics have argued that billionaires’ space exploration is not only dangerous but also selfish.
It would cost $6billion to save 41 million people who are set to die of hunger by the end of 2021, according to UN World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley.
He wrote on Twitter: “Hey, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, so excited to see you compete on who gets to space first! BUT, I would love to see you TEAM up together to save the 41 million people who are about to starve this year on Earth! It only takes $6 Billion. We can solve this quickly!”
Climate activist Prince William said: “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.”
The money invested by Mr Bezos on his trip to space, reportedly could have planted up to five billion trees or funded humanitarian efforts in Nigeria, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa combined.
Where do you stand on the right for private companies to venture into space? Have your say in the comments section below.
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