about 3 weeks ago Ars Technica first mentioned That astronomers were tracking the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, and were increasingly confident that it would hit the moon on March 4.
This story sparked a firestorm of media activity. Much of this coverage criticized SpaceX for failing to properly dispose of the second stage of its Falcon 9 rocket after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory mission, or DSCOVR, was launched in 2015. British newspapers, in particular, It was a field day. Even kind ESA berries berriesnoting that he is keen to maintain enough fuel to put spent rocket stages in stable orbits around the sun.
However, it turns out we were all wrong. In fact, the Falcon 9 rocket will not hit the moon next month. Alternatively, it may be a Chinese missile.
Bill Gray, who wrote the widely used Project Pluto-tracking program for near-Earth objects and was the original source for the Falcon 9 hitting the moon story, He admitted the error on his website Saturday. He explained that in 2015, he and other observers found an unknown object in the sky and gave it a provisional name, WE0913A. Other observations suggested that it might have been a man-made object, and the second stage of the rocket used to launch the DSCOVR soon became a prime candidate.
“I thought it was either DSCOVR or some related device,” Gray wrote on Saturday. “Further data confirmed that yes, WE0913A passed the moon two days after DSCOVR launch, and I and others came to accept the identification with the second stage as correct. The object was about the brightness we would expect, appeared at the expected time and moved in a reasonable orbit.”
This was probably a harmless mistake that went unnoticed until astronomers discovered that this object was about to hit the moon. Suddenly, the prospect of a Falcon 9 rocket being wrong – after all, Elon Musk is a global celebrity – was big news around the world.
It was an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, John Giorgini, who realized that this object was not actually the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. He wrote to Gray on Saturday morning explaining that the DSCOVR spacecraft’s trajectory had not come particularly close to the Moon, and therefore would be It’s a little weird if the second stage veers close enough to hit him. This prompted Gray to look again at his data, identifying other potential candidates.
Soon he found one – the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in October 2014 on a Long March 3C rocket. This lunar mission sent a small spacecraft to the Moon as a preliminary test for an eventual lunar sample return mission. The launch time and trajectory of the moon are almost exactly identical to the orbit of the object that will hit the moon in March.
“To some extent, this remains circumstantial evidence,” Gray wrote. “But I would consider it fairly convincing evidence. So I am convinced that the object about to hit the Moon on March 4 2022 at 12:25 UTC is in fact the stage of the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket.”
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