Ahead of lunar rocket crash, astronomers call for better space debris tracking
by Paul Brinkmann
Washington DC (UPI) Feb 21, 2021
A mixup among leading astronomers about a rocket that will crash into the moon on March 4 has led to calls for better debris tracking of Deep Space manufactured objects.
Independent astronomer Bill Gray of Maine, one of few astronomers who track human-made objects in Deep Space, discovered in January that a section of a discarded rocket would crash into the moon.
Due to earlier miscalculations and a general lack of data available, he thought the object was a SpaceX Falcon 9 upper stage that launched the United States' Deep Space Climate Observatory in early 2015.
But later, he and others in the astronomy community realized the accidental moon collider is part of a Chinese Long March rocket that sent the Chang'e-5 T1 lunar test probe into space in 2014.
"As far as I know, I'm the only one keeping track of these objects, using observations made by the asteroid tracking community," Gray told UPI in an interview.
Most satellites orbit the Earth in a low orbit about 600 miles up, including the International Space Station. Many others orbit within about 22,000 miles from Earth, known as geostationary.
But Gray tracks a few dozen pieces of space trash that fly in very high orbits, closer to the moon, which is 238,900 miles from Earth.
"In the past, everyone has been rather careless about where high-orbiting debris went," Gray said. He wrote software known as Project Pluto to track such objects, which astronomers use as part of their hunt for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat.
But Gray said new Deep Space missions to the moon and Mars make it more important to know where such items are headed.
Gray's initial suggestion that SpaceX was the originator prompted media around the world to report on his finding. Students at the University of Arizona studied the composition of the object and confirmed it matched Chinese rockets, not Falcon 9.
After he corrected himself, some accused him and the media of being unfair to SpaceX.
Gray suggests a new organization be established to track such debris, and that nations agree to require accurate data for any Deep Space launches -- if not requiring such missions ensure that space debris is disposed of safely somehow.
As it is, Gray said the object probably won't cause significant damage on the moon, but it may create a crater about the size of a tractor-trailer truck in diameter when it hits around 7:25 a.m. EST on March 4.
The impact won't be visible from Earth due to the curvature of the moon, but satellites may observe the impact crater afterward.
Other astronomers have followed the moon collision predictions as they unfolded with interest, including Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.
"Really, we should know where our space junk is, right? There's a due diligence factor here that should apply," McDowell, who studies satellite tracking data and works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, told UPI in an interview.
But like others, McDowell focuses mostly on low-Earth orbit, where the vast majority of satellites are. He said Deep Space is like the Wild West of space tracking, and no one is funded to track such objects. Radar on Earth isn't strong enough to track such debris, so telescopes are required.
Debris close to the moon is even harder to track because calculations of how lunar gravity influences an orbit aren't certain to be accurate without radio telemetry, and most debris isn't sending signals, he said.
"Someone should do it, particularly with astronauts heading to the moon again," he said. "I think it would be better if NASA were given the job, rather than the Space Force, because it will be important for civil and military missions in the future."
China denies making space junk set to crash into Moon
Astronomers initially thought the wayward object was a chunk of a SpaceX rocket that blasted off seven years ago and was abandoned in space after completing its mission.
But it is now believed to be the booster for the Chang'e 5-T1, launched in 2014 as part of the Chinese space agency's lunar exploration programme.
The rocket is expected to crash into the far side of the moon on March 4.
But China's foreign ministry rejected the claim Monday, saying the booster in question had "safely entered the Earth's atmosphere and was completely incinerated".
Beijing "conscientiously upholds the long-term sustainability of activities in outer space", spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing.
China has set its sights on becoming a space superpower and took a landmark step last year with the launch of the longest crewed mission to its new space station.
The world's second-largest economy has ploughed billions into its military-run space programme and hopes to eventually send humans to the Moon.
China denies making space junk set to crash into Moon
Beijing (AFP) Feb 21, 2022
China on Monday denied responsibility for a rocket set to slam into the Moon, after experts said the piece of space junk likely came from Beijing's lunar exploration programme. Astronomers initially thought the wayward object was a chunk of a SpaceX rocket that blasted off seven years ago and was abandoned in space after completing its mission. But it is now believed to be the booster for the Chang'e 5-T1, launched in 2014 as part of the Chinese space agency's lunar exploration programme. Th ... read more
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