Anyone secretively residing on the far side of the Moon will have their own “Don’t Look Up” crisis in early March. That’s because a fragment of a SpaceX rocket will collide with the lunar surface at over 5,700 miles per hour, creating a decent-sized crater with a diameter of 19 meters.
This triggered a flood of furious responses on social media. Many of them were along the lines of: Is this legal? Can SpaceX be held responsible for their space trash colliding with the Moon?
“Theoretically, yes,” says attorney Steven Kaufman, who co-heads satellite practice at the law firm Hogan Lovells. “Practically, probably not.”
While there are international laws that cover accountability for damages resulting from mishaps involving spacecraft, there must be real harm for legal action to be taken. “It’s crashing into the Moon,” Kaufman adds. “Nobody owns the Moon.”
In February 2015, the booster was launched from Florida as part of an interplanetary mission to deploy a space weather satellite on a million-mile trip.
The rocket’s second stage became derelict after completing a long engine burn and delivering the NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory on its way to the Lagrange point.
It did not have enough fuel to return to Earth’s atmosphere during this stage. Also, it “lacked the energy to escape the gravity of the Earth-Moon system,” according to meteorologist Eric Berger.
“So it has been following a somewhat chaotic orbit since February 2015,” Berger added.
Space experts think the rocket – roughly four metric tonnes of “space junk” – will collide with the Moon in a few weeks at a velocity of 2.58km/s.
According to Bill Gray, who tracks near-Earth objects, asteroids, minor planets, and comets, the Falcon 9’s upper stage will most likely hit the far side of the Moon, near the equator, on March 4. According to him, the object “made a close lunar flyby on January 5” but will have “a certain impact on March 4.”
“This is the first unintentional case [of space junk hitting the moon] of which I am aware,” Gray added.
Because of the unpredictability of sunlight “pushing” on the rocket and “ambiguity in measuring rotation periods,” the actual position of the rocket’s impact is unclear.
“These unpredictable effects are very small. But they will accumulate between now and March 4,” Gray wrote, adding that further observations were needed to refine the precise time and location of the impact.
Gray believes the crash will most likely go unnoticed from Earth. “The bulk of the moon is in the way, and even if it were on the near side, the impact would occur a few days after New Moon.”
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, the impact was due on March 4 but was “not a big deal.”
Nonetheless, space scientists feel the effect will yield useful data. Berger believes the event will allow him to see subsurface debris blasted by the rocket’s strike, while Gray is “hoping for a lunar impact.”
“We already know what happens when junk hits the Earth; there’s not much to learn from that,” he said.