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Rocket heading for moon impact may not be SpaceX’s after all

Sky-watcher Bill Gray created a stir last month when he said that available data suggested the second stage of a SpaceX booster that launched in 2015 was on a collision course with the moon.

The global media coverage of his findings prompted others to examine the relevant data in greater detail, leading to the discovery that the out-of-control booster may not belong to SpaceX after all.

In a message posted on his website on Saturday, February 12, Gray explained how he’d been pretty certain that the booster had been launched to space seven years ago. But he said that since his moon crash prediction went viral, a NASA engineer contacted him to suggest that while the booster is still expected to slam into the lunar surface on March 4, the rocket hardware most likely belongs to China, not SpaceX.

The new findings suggest that the booster is most likely a part of a Long March 3C rocket launched by China’s Chang’e 5-T1 moon-bound mission in October 2014, and not the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster that put the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) into orbit for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2015.

A Chinese Long March 3C rocket launch.
A Chinese Long March 3C rocket launch. STR/Getty Images

Gray said in his message that his error can be traced back to 2015 when he misidentified the current object of interest as a SpaceX booster.

“Essentially, I had pretty good circumstantial evidence for the identification, but nothing conclusive,” Gray said. “That was not at all unusual. Identifications of high-flying space junk often require a bit of detective work, and sometimes we never do figure out the ID for a bit of space junk.”

Despite the error, Gray says the booster is still on a collision course with the moon and says it will hit the lunar surface within a few kilometers of the originally predicted spot on March 4 at about 7:25 ET.

Gray said previously that following the impact, he hopes NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar orbiter will be able to photograph the crash site for further study.

The impact will be the first time for a man-made object to unintentionally crash onto the lunar surface. A planned impact took place 13 years ago when a NASA Centaur rocket and accompanying probe were sent at speed toward the moon in a mission tasked with trying to find water on Earth’s only natural satellite.

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