In a few weeks’ time, a rocket launched in 2015 is expected to crash into the Moon.
The fast-moving piece of space junk is the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket which hoisted the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite off our planet. It has been chaotically looping around Earth and the Moon ever since.
Asteroid-hunter Bill Gray has been keeping tabs on the 4-tonne booster since its launch. This month he realised his orbit-tracking software projected the booster will slam into the lunar surface on March 4, moving at more than 9,000 kilometres per hour.
The booster is tumbling wildly as it travels, which adds some uncertainty to the timing and location of the predicted impact. It is likely to occur on the far side of the Moon, so it won’t be visible from Earth.
Some astronomers say the collision is “not a big deal”, but to a space archaeologist like me it’s quite exciting. It will be the Moon’s newest archaeological site, joining more than 100 other locations that document human activity on the Moon and in cislunar space.
A history of crash landing on the Moon
The impact will leave a new crater on the dark side of the Moon.
The very first human-made artefact to make contact with the Moon was the Soviet Luna 2 in 1959 – an extraordinary feat, as it was only two years after the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.
The mission consisted of a rocket, a probe, and three “bombs”. One released a cloud of sodium gas to enable the crash to be seen from Earth. The USSR didn’t want the groundbreaking mission to be called a hoax.
The other two “bombs” were spheres of pentagonal medallions inscribed with the date and Soviet symbols. If they exploded as planned, they would have scattered 144 medallions over the lunar surface.
Other crashes have been missions gone wrong, like the Israeli Beresheet lander in 2019. This was especially controversial as the lander carried a secret cargo of dried tardigrades, tiny creatures that could be revived in the presence of water.
Various spacecraft have naturally decayed and fallen out of orbit, like the Japanese relay satellite Okina in 2009. Others have been intentionally crashed at the end of their mission life.
The NASA Ebb and Flow spacecraft were deliberately crashed into the lunar south pole in 2012, specifically to avoid any risk of damaging the Apollo landing sites. Impacting at a speed of 6,000km per hour, they left craters 6 metres across.
Many crashes have been used to collect seismic data. Observations from the controlled impact of Saturn third-stage boosters and ascent modules from the Apollo missions were particularly valuable, as timing, location and impact energy were known.
The Falcon 9 rocket stage is significantly larger than the tiny Ebb and Flow spacecraft and is travelling faster. The crash will make a much larger crater, which will kick up chunks of rock and dust. On this airless world, the dust could travel a fair way before settling down.
The only other spacecraft on the Moon’s far side are the US Ranger 4 probe, which crashed in 1962, and China’s Chang-e 4 lander and Yutu-2 rover. Yutu-2 is still trundling along the lunar surface on its six wheels.
Yutu’s latest results show that “soil” on the far side may be stickier than the near side, and there is a higher density of small craters.
The rocket stage could potentially cause damage to these historic spacecraft, if it lands on or near them. However, this is statistically unlikely. Current predictions have it landing in Hertzsprung crater, a long way from the Aitken basin where the Chinese spacecraft are operating.
Although there are no cameras to observe the crash, at some point NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is likely to pass over and image the impact point.
We’ll learn something about the geology of the location from the colour differences and distribution of the ejected material. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the Moon’s mysterious far side.
Changing attitudes to space junk
In the earlier Space Age, little thought was given to leaving what many call “trash” on the lunar surface.
The Moon is sometimes considered a “dead” world because it has no life. The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Planetary Protection Policy does not require any special precautions for lunar activities.
But there is a growing awareness the Moon has distinct environmental values of its own. The Declaration of the Rights of the Moon, created by a group of independent researchers, states the Moon has “the right to exist, persist and continue its vital cycles unaltered, unharmed and unpolluted by human beings”.
Canadian researchers Eytan Tepper and Christopher Whitehead have suggested the Moon could be protected by giving it legal personhood, much like the Whanganui river in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Moon is struck by meteors all the time. In many ways, the Falcon 9 impact will be just another one. What makes it interesting is how it acts as a litmus test for changing public opinions about our responsibilities to the space environment.
The public is looking for accountability from space agencies and private corporations. As plans for lunar mining and habitation accelerate, hopefully it’s a message that is ready to be heard.
Young Jupiter likely gobbled up millions of planetoids – The Weather Network
New research suggests that Jupiter contains the remnants of numerous planetoids that it consumed as it grew in the early solar system.
Jupiter is the largest and most massive planet in our solar system, tipping the cosmic scales at over 317 times the mass of Earth. Most of its bulk is made up of just two elements — hydrogen and helium. However, a small percentage of the planet is composed of heavier elements, all of which astronomers group together into the category of metals.
This artist impression shows dark scars in Jupiter’s clouds due to shards of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacting the planet in 1994. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/NASA/ESA
This same distinction is used in stellar astronomy, where a star is described as having a specific metallicity, which refers to the amount of stuff in the star that is not hydrogen or helium.
New research has used data from NASA’s Juno probe to investigate Jupiter’s metallicity.
As Juno orbits around Jupiter, it makes periodic close passes over the planet’s cloud-tops. During each of these passes, the spacecraft keeps careful record of the gravitational pull it experiences due to the material underneath it. This gives researchers an idea of exactly how much stuff is under Jupiter’s clouds in different regions of the planet.
Using this data, an international team led by Yamila Miguel, from the Dutch national expertise institute for scientific space research (SRON) and the Leiden Observatory, constructed computer models of Jupiter’s interior to account for what Juno recorded.
Their study revealed some unexpected details about the massive gas giant.
This view of Jupiter’s cloud tops was taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft as it made its 31st close-pass around the planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS, processed by citizen scientist Tanya Oleksuik (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Firstly, the distribution of the metals within Jupiter is not uniform. Instead, they are more concentrated the deeper into the planet you go. While heavier elements do tend to sink towards a planet’s core, this discovery is unusual because it was assumed that the motions of Jupiter’s atmosphere would cause the metals to be more evenly distributed.
“Earlier we thought that Jupiter has convection, like boiling water, making it completely mixed,” Miguel said in a SRON press release. “But our finding shows differently.”
Secondly, the total amount of Jupiter’s metal content is somewhere between 3 to 9 per cent of the entire planet, or roughly equivalent to 11-30 times the mass of Earth. That’s a lot of heavy elements for the planet to consume in a relatively short time.
“There are two mechanisms for a gas giant like Jupiter to acquire metals during its formation: through the accretion of small pebbles or larger planetesimals,” Migel said.
Planetesimals (aka planetoids) are solid chunks of rock and/or ice that formed in the early solar system. This includes asteroids and comets larger than 1 kilometre across, but smaller than 100 km. Anything larger would be an ’embryonic planet’ or ‘protoplanet’, while objects smaller than 1 km would be considered ‘pebbles’.
Watch below: NASA Juno spots exotic SHALLOW LIGHTING on Jupiter
According to Migel, once a ‘baby’ planet grows massive enough, its gravity tends to snag the smaller pebbles and fling them out of the way. Thus, by the time Jupiter accumulated enough mass to develop its hydrogen-helium atmosphere, its own gravity would have blocked it from consuming these tiny objects.
However, as the researchers note in the paper, their results
indicate that Jupiter continued to accumulate heavy elements, in large amounts, while its hydrogen-helium envelope was still growing. So, a significant amount of the planet’s metals had to come from larger objects.
“Planetesimals are too big to be blocked, so they must have played a role,” Migel said.
So, how many planetesimals has Jupiter eaten?
If we use some typical asteroid masses from NASA, to account for up to 30 Earth-masses worth of metals, Jupiter would have had to gobble up somewhere between a few hundred million larger ones to billions of smaller ones!
Five planets are lining up in the sky in June and will peak tonight. Here's how to see it. – CBS News
Five planets are moving into a rare alignment, which will be visible from Earth this week. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are lining up — in that order — for the first time since December 2004. On Friday, June 24, the phenomenon will be the most visible to stargazers.
While it is common to see a conjunction of three planets close together, seeing five is rare, according to Sky & Telescope. The planets are lining up in their natural order from the Sun, which is also remarkable, says the science magazine published by American Astronomical Society.
The five so-called “naked-eye” planets were visible beginning on June 3 and 4, and the lineup could be seen with binoculars — but only for about half an hour, before Mercury was lost in the glare of the sun.
But on June 24, viewing will be optimal. Even if the distance between Mercury and Saturn increases, it’s getting easier to spot Mercury, so it is getting progressively easier to see all five planets, Diana Hannikainen, observing editor of Sky & Telescope, told CBS News via email.
Hannikainen said the sky on the morning of the 24th “will present a delightful sight” because the waning crescent moon will also join the procession between Venus and Mars.
The planets should be visible on the days leading up to this. Sky & Telescope says the best time to see the line up on June 24 is 45 minutes before sunrise. It should be visible on the eastern horizon.
Four of the naked-eye planets have been lining up in the for the past few months, according to NASA. But over the next few months, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and Venus will spread out. By September, Venus and Saturn will no longer be visible to most observers.
Another astronomical phenomenon will be visible in June: the M13 globular star cluster, a tightly packed spherical collection of stars. The M13, also known as the Hercules Cluster, contains thousands of stars, which are thought to be around 12 billion years old — almost the age of the universe itself, NASA says.
Clear skies across mid-Island allowing for unobstructed view of rare planetary alignment – Nanaimo News NOW
No special equipment is needed to spot the stellar phenomena, with all being easily bright enough to be visible with the naked eye.
Arkos said they’ll even be visible in more populated city areas, although he suggested getting away from light pollution for the best effect.
“Just before the sun comes up is when you have your best chance to catch all of these planets,” Arkos added. “The trickiest one is going to be Mercury because it’s very close to the sun in the sky so you have to wait literally until the sun is just about to rise to catch a glimpse of Mercury in the glow of the sun.”
The event peaks ahead of sunrise on Friday, meaning those wanting to catch a glimpse should set an alarm for 4 a.m. and be in position by 4:30 a.m. looking eastward.
A clear view of the sky to the horizon from the northeast to southeast is key.
With little cloud in the forecast, stargazers will have the opportunity to see variations of the alignment with the moon until June 27th.
The planetary alignment will be visible in varying degrees until July 6 when Mercury will disappear in the light of the sun.
“You’ll see them shifting as time goes on because of course they move at different rates in the sky so they won’t maintain that particular configuration exactly, it’ll change over time,” Arkos said.
Following this planetary alignment event, the attention of Arkos and his fellow astronomers turns to the James Webb deep space telescope, due to release its first official images on July 12.
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