SpaceX rocket: when moon will be hit by Falcon 9 booster, will it be visible from Earth - should we be worried

Is a rocket booster crashing into the moon something for us to be worried about on Earth?

February sees the release of Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall, a special-effects laden disaster epic in which the moon is knocked from its orbit and set on a collision course with Earth.

It’s the stuff of science-fiction of course, but before then, the moon will be subject to (admittedly much less impressive) forces.

A rocket launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company in 2015 is set to crash into our planet’s only natural satellite in the near future.

But will the impact see an Emmerich-style apocalypse befall humanity’s only home?

Well, no.

But here is everything you need to know about it.

What is happening?

The Falcon 9 booster rocket was launched in 2015 as part of a mission to install a weather satellite in space.

Having completed its vital part in the mission, the rocket was abandoned in high orbit, where it was subject to the gravitational forces of the Earth, the moon and the sun.

The derelict rocket joined millions more pieces of “space junk”, and was of no real cause for concern.

But the competing forces of the three celestial bodies caused it to enter a “chaotic” orbit as it drifted through space.

Ultimately, this gravitational tug-of-war has put the object on a collision course with the moon, a demise first identified by journalist Eric Berger on the space website Ars Technica, and by data analyst Bill Gray in his blog.

“It’s basically a four-tonne empty metal tank, with a rocket engine on the back. And so if you imagine throwing that at a rock at 5,000 miles an hour, it’s not going to be happy,” Prof McDowell says.

When will the impact be?

Using computer software and simulating the forces acting upon each object, Bill Gray was able to predict when and where the rocket will impact the moon.

It is thought that the rocket will meet its end on 4 March, and will crash into the far side of the moon.

Should we be worried?

“From any ‘safety’ viewpoint, not at all,” says Gray.

According to the analyst, there have been some concerns on social media that the lunar impact might somehow tweak the moon's orbit.

But that simply won’t be possible with an object of the rocket booster’s small size.

During the Apollo era of exploration, similar boosters were deliberately aimed at the moon to calibrate seismometers left behind by previous missions.

And in 2009, another rocket booster was deliberately crashed into the moon in hopes of learning something from the debris ejected.

“The moon has remained in its orbit,” says Gray.

But the concern with space junk impacting the moon could come years into the future, when humanity may have colonised it.

“If we get into the future where there are cities and bases on the Moon, we want to know what’s out there,” says Prof McDowell.

“It’s much easier to get that organised when there is slow traffic in space, rather than waiting until it’s a problem.”

Why could it be a good thing?

On his blog, Gray said he is “rooting” for a lunar impact, and is actively looking forward to the rocket striking the moon.

Why?

“We already know what happens when junk hits the earth,” he explains, “there’s not much to learn from that.”

As mentioned above, a rocket booster was deliberately crashed into the moon in 2009 in the hopes of learning something from the debris ejected.

In theory, the Falcon 9 impact is a similar scientific endeavour, only this time there’s one crucial difference - it’s happening for free.

Satellites already orbiting the moon could pass over the fresh impact crater shortly after the event, where they could be able to observe the geology of the moon in detail.

Will the impact be visible from Earth?

But despite the possibility of scientific understanding, the impact won’t be visible from Earth, as the rocket is predicted to hit the far-side of the moon.

That’s the side of the moon that always faces away from the Earth.

“I have particularly hoped for a booster to hit on the near side,” said Grey. “That would presumably be visible from Earth, but we'd have to get very lucky for that.”

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