(ORDO NEWS) — Astronomers don’t often succeed in predicting a new impact crater on the Moon, but that’s exactly what will happen on March 4 when SpaceX’s decommissioned Falcon 9 rocket crashes into it.
This rocket was launched in 2015 with NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) probe on board, which was placed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, in the direction of the Sun.
However, the now redundant upper stage of the rocket had insufficient speed to enter an independent orbit around the Sun and was left in space with no way to return it back to the Earth’s atmosphere.
Burning a rocket in the dense layers of the earth’s atmosphere is a normal practice, since this makes it possible to reduce the littering of the near-Earth orbit with space objects of artificial origin.
Starting in February 2015, this 14-meter-long spent rocket upper stage weighing approximately four tons has been in a wide orbit around the Earth. It was very difficult to accurately predict its trajectory, since it was influenced by gravitational forces from the Sun, Moon and Earth.
But now we can say with certainty that it will crash into the Moon on March 4 at a speed of about 2.6 kilometers per second. As a result, a crater with a diameter of about 19 meters will form.
Most countries have signed planetary protection protocols, called the COSPAR protocols, which are designed to reduce the risks of biological contamination of space bodies by terrestrial organisms – and vice versa. These protocols are driven by both scientific and ethical considerations.
The biggest breach of COSPAR protocols was the 2019 fall to the moon of the Beresheet spacecraft, built by a private Israeli firm. On board this device were DNA samples and thousands of tardigrades.
Tardigrades are organisms about half a millimeter in size that can tolerate the conditions of the vacuum of space, although they are not able to be active in these conditions. These organisms – and the microbes that live inside them – are now scattered around the Beresheet crash site.
Most likely, none of these tardigrades will reach a body of water in which conditions will allow these organisms to live and reproduce, but, nevertheless, this case represents a real risk of biological contamination of the Moon.
The DSCOVR Falcon 9 rocket was not sterile at launch, but there was no specially placed bioburden on board. She has been in space for about seven years, so by now the risk of biological contamination is extremely small, but with each new object that crashes into the moon, it is growing, experts say.
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