SpaceX and our space debris problem

It’s been a month of ups and downs for SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket ship, and the satellite internet company.

Bad news: A solar storm sent 40 Starlink satellites back to Earth. They will burn in Earth’s atmosphere, which cost the company $100 million and called into question Musk’s big plans for satellite internet beyond those recently announced. China as well as NASA. Good news? Everything from those reports that a SpaceX rocket is about to crash into the moon were wrong: the rocket belongs to someone else.

The error highlights the growing problem of all the junk we, as a planet, launch into space and how we deal with it (or not, as the case may be). Not everything we send up goes down, and some of it gets lost. This is especially true when it leaves Earth’s orbit because no one is officially tracking our space junk. Basically, we leave it up to a handful of dedicated astronomers who do it as a hobby.

One such astronomer is Bill Gray. He developed software called Project Pluto which is used to track objects in space. A few weeks ago he announced that part of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will crash into the Moon on March 4th. A lot of news followed (disasters involving Musk tend to make headlines), but any hope that Musk would be knocked down crashed back to Earth a few days ago. Gray announced that he had made a mistake: the wayward object was most likely the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 launch vehicle. rocketwhich was launched in 2014.

Surprisingly, this case of misidentification is not difficult even for the relatively small number of people who are constantly monitoring such things. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained that it is difficult to determine the exact path of an uncontrolled object in space. There are many variables that can change an object’s trajectory, and even a small change adds up over time and distance.

Also — and that’s the crux of the problem — we don’t keep track of these things anyway.

We have a good idea of ​​what’s in Earth’s orbit, especially if these objects are sending us signals or could endanger anything or anyone in Earth orbit (or on Earth itself). And we know where such important scientific things as space telescopes, deep space meteorological satellitesas well as probes are.

But a piece of space debris — let’s say a discarded rocket stage — floating far beyond Earth’s orbit is more of a curiosity than a concern. Since there are no rules for tracking what we launch into deep space, the only information we might need is launch data and observations from astronomers who happened to catch it on its merry way through the night sky, assuming that it even close enough to be visible.

The missile confusion happened years ago, Gray told the New York Times. He calculated the orbit an object that was first observed in March 2015 and found to have passed the moon about a month ago. This matched what he thought was the flight path recent SpaceX launchso Gray was pretty sure the object had been a jettisoned rocket booster from that launch.

It wasn’t until he announced that the SpaceX rocket was going to hit the Moon that he realized it hadn’t been launched into the Moon at all, so it probably wasn’t an object. But China’s Chang’e 5-T1 rocket, launched in October 2014, was pointed towards the moon, making it the newest (and current) most likely suspect. Also helpful, McDowell said: Amateur radio satellite from Luxembourg. caught a ride on this rocket booster, providing several days of orbital data. Once SpaceX’s rocket was ruled out, they realized they were most likely looking at a Chinese rocket instead.

If this all seems like an alarming amount of guesswork, thankfully, when it comes to things that can crash into the Earth, we’re a bit more diligent. Personal interest, along with the knowledge that probably happened dinosaurs is a powerful motivator. That’s why since 1998 NASA has been exploiting Center for the Study of Near-Earth Objects, which tracks potentially dangerous objects so that we can detect and, if necessary, stop collisions that could otherwise lead to disaster. In particular, the center monitors asteroids and comets that are large enough to pass close enough to our planet – less than 4.6 million miles is considered “close” – to pose a potential threat to our planet.

In addition, NASA has told Recode that it only really tracks space debris when the debris could endanger NASA assets. The Near-Earth Object Research Center eventually helped figure out who the rocket likely belonged to, but that was only in response to the attention it was drawing to its impending demise. The US Space Force also tracks orbital debris, but did not respond to a request for comment on whether it tracks debris in lunar orbit, and if so, how.

“Things that are at an altitude of more than, say, 100,000 kilometers? Space Force doesn’t care, McDowell said. “This is a fairly small amount of traffic. There is really no risk that they will hit each other.”

This won’t be the first time a man-made object has crashed into the Moon. While the deliberate collision of objects with planetary bodies seems more like a fictional villain from a James Bond movie, cobra commanderor Georges Méliès, happens. Last November NASA launched a rocket into an asteroid to see if we can knock asteroids off course if one of them ever threatens Earth. And in 2009 NASA threw a rocket into a lunar crater to see if there was water in the crater. And there are several more missions to different planets from different countries that end with the spacecraft crashing into the bodies they orbit after they run out of fuel or complete their missions.

Unintentional crashes are rarer, but we had a fairly recent example in 2019 when an Israeli company’s lunar mission ended in a lander crashing, possibly spilling thousands of tardigrades that were with it onto its surface. Oops. Before that we did not have random lunar disaster since 1971. At least none of the ones we know about.

“This is probably not the first time this has happened,” McDowell said. “It’s just the first time we pay enough attention to notice.”

We now think that the Chang’e 5-T1 booster should hit the moon on March 4 at around 7:30 am. If you’re hoping to see it, you’re out of luck: it will fall on the far side of the moon, which means it won’t be visible to us now or ever. The moon is spinning locked with earth, so we always see the same side. But it is possible that some of the objects in lunar orbit will get an image of the crater they leave behind. NASA told Recode that its lunar orbiter would not be able to see the impact, but would look for the crater. It may take “weeks or months” to find it.

McDowell said he hopes the incident will make the general public aware of the gaps in our knowledge when it comes to artificial objects floating in deep space, wherever they may be. He would like to see an international database of all launches with their trajectories, as well as funding for at least one person to track them. This will be especially important in the coming decades as the volume of lunar traffic increases, as well as the number of countries and private companies creating it. Now we have a chance to prepare for later.

“Everything gets confusing. Let’s get organized,” McDowell said.

As for the location of that SpaceX rocket that was initially blamed for the impending lunar disaster? We can only guess about it. We may see him again someday, but no one seems to know for sure.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign here so you don’t miss the next one!

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