Rogue Rocket to Collide With Moon in March

The wayward rocket is expected to hit the lunar surface on March 4.

photo of moon at night, surrounded by stars

Christophe Lehenaff / Getty Images

Update - Feb. 13, 2022: Since the time of publication, it has been discovered the rocket hitting the moon is not the SpaceX Falcon 9. Bill Gray, the developer behind the Project Pluto astronomical software used to track objects near Earth, addressed the error on his website, reports Ars Technica. Currently, the rocket is believed to be a 2014 spacecraft launched by China. Treehugger has updated the headline of this story to reflect the new information.

While SpaceX has partnered with NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, a piece of its own launch history will unexpectedly have the honor of getting there first. 

The massive upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, about the size of a large bus, will impact on the far side of the moon at around 7:25 a.m. EST on March 4th. Traveling at roughly 5,700 miles per hour, the impact is expected to create a new crater spanning 65 feet in diameter.  

"This thing is big," Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor with the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, told Stripes. "It's 46 feet long, 13 feet wide and weighs about 8,600 pounds."

A Date With Destiny

For this particular rocket, its final resting place on the moon has been a journey over seven years in the making. On Feb. 11, 2015, it blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory for the National Oceanic and the Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Unlike other upper-stage SpaceX rockets, which generally either burn up in the atmosphere or splash down in a remote part of the Pacific called “Point Nemo”, this one needed every bit of fuel to push the NOAA satellite into a very high altitude above Earth. As a result, the dead upper-stage entered into an extremely elongated and uncontrolled orbit around the Earth. Over time, that orbit has taken it outside the orbit of the moon around the Earth—and back. It was only a matter of time (and math) before the two would come together in spectacular fashion. 

Most surprising is that this collision course was discovered not by NASA or some other space agency, but by an independent researcher named Bill Gray. For the past 25 years, Gray has computed orbits and made predictions for high-altitude space junk—a hobby, he claims, that is his alone. 

“I realized that my software complained because it couldn’t project the orbit past March 4,” Gray, who specializes in orbital mechanics, told The Washington Post. “And it couldn’t do it because the rocket had hit the moon.”

After Gray posted his observations in a detailed blog post, others in the space community turned their attention to the errant rocket and confirmed his analysis. And while this is certainly not the first time humanity has crashed something into the moon, this is believed to be the first recorded unintentional instance. It’s also renewed the conversation of space junk, an estimated 27,000 pieces of which are tracked by the U.S. Department of Defense, and our responsibilities to the space/lunar environment. 

“Traffic in deep space is increasing,” writes Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Center for Astrophysics Harvard and Smithsonian. “And it's not like the old days with just the USA and the USSR sending stuff to deep space, it's many countries and even commercial companies like SpaceX. So I think it's time for the world to get more serious about regulating and cataloging deep space activity.”

Will the Impact Be Observed?

As the collision will occur on the far side of the moon, no one on Earth will unfortunately be able to observe the impact as it unfolds. There is a slight chance that either NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-2 could record the event, but Gray described the possibility as “lousy.” Instead, he says, it’s likely that these two orbiters will fly over the impact site and capture a very fresh crater. Whatever is kicked up by the impact will hopefully reveal more about the moon’s underlying geology in this region, as well as other insights. 

“We know the mass of an empty Falcon 9 booster,” adds Gray, “and that it will hit at 2.58 km/s [1.6 mi/s]; the known momentum and energy of the object making the crater ought to help in calibrating the crater size vs. energy function.”

As for the moon itself, pockmarked by more than 100,000 craters, this latest human-made one won’t cause any lasting harm. Instead, argues McDowell, it should serve as a warning for any future lunar plans humanity might have on the horizon. 

"If we get into the future where there are cities and bases on the moon, we want to know what's out there,” McDowell told the BBC. “It's much easier to get that organized when there is slow traffic in space, rather than waiting until it's a problem."