An out-of-control rocket booster is set to slam into the moon at around 5,000 mph on Friday, March 4.
The booster first hit the headlines in January when experienced sky-watcher Bill Gray identified it as the upper stage of a SpaceX vehicle from a 2015 mission that sent the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory into orbit.
However, after a closer look at the available data, it subsequently emerged that it may in fact be part of a Long March 3C rocket launched by China’s Chang’e 5-T1 moon-bound mission in October 2014, though China denies any link.
Either way, the booster is set to hit the lunar surface, close to the Hertzsprung Crater, at 7:25 a.m. ET (4:25 a.m. PT) on Friday.
As the impact will take place on the far side of the moon, ground telescopes will be unable to capture images of the crash site.
“If it were observable — which, sadly, it won’t be — you would see a big flash, and dust and disintegrated rocket bits and pebbles and boulders thrown out, some of it for hundreds of kilometers,” Gray said in comments reported by CNN.
Instead, NASA plans to use its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to search for the impact site, though it could take a considerable amount of time to locate it.
A NASA spokesperson told Space.com that LRO will be able to use its cameras “to identify the impact site, comparing older images to images taken after the impact,” but added that the search for the crash site “will be challenging and might take weeks to months.”
The spokesperson described the unplanned crash as “an exciting research opportunity” for the space agency.
The impact will mark the first time for a man-made object to unintentionally crash onto the moon. A planned impact occurred in 2009 when a NASA Centaur rocket and accompanying probe were directed to slam into the moon at high speed in a mission aimed at locating water on Earth’s only natural satellite.
Whether researchers will be able to determine with greater certainty the origin of the rocket booster remains to be seen.
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