UA students identify and track rocket booster on track to collide with the moon

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 8:28 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2022 at 10:02 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Right now, a rocket booster is on track to collide with the moon, and a team at the University of Arizona is tracking it.

The University of Arizona Space Domain Awareness Team believes the booster will hit the moon on March 4.

Students used the RAPTORS system, a telescope on top of the Kuiper Space Sciences building to observe the rocket.

“They have been picking up this booster in deep space for the last seven years or so,” said UArizona Vishnu Reddy, who co-leads the Space Domain Awareness lab.

Reddy said the booster will hit the moon at a high rate of speed at about two and a half kilometers a second.

When the rocket hits the moon, Reddy said it will create a crater he estimates will be somewhere between 60 to 100 feet and about six to seven feet deep.

“In the process of creating the crater, the booster is going to vaporize. It’s about 4 tons so it is relatively heavy,” Reddy said.

Reddy predicts the impact is going to happen out of sight, on the far side of the moon in a crater called, Hertzsprung.

“It would be nice if it would hit the near side and we could all have a little barbeque outside and look at the moon and the impact, but no fireworks for us,” Reddy said.

Reddy said before and after photos of the moon will help them verify if the booster made impact.

“Once they compare, they should be able to find there is a new crater on the moon,” Reddy said.

Not only does this team know where the rocket is headed, but it also knows where it came from.

“Initially we thought this was a SpaceX booster, but then we realized there was a Chinese booster that went to the moon and this orbit fits that mission better,” Reddy said. “What we have been able to show here at the University of Arizona is that we were able to study the light reflected off the paint from these boosted and identify which one is Chinese and which one is SpaceX. That is our specialty that we have here.”

The booster is just one of many pieces of space junk this team and others around the world are tracking. More than 27-thousand pieces of orbital debris are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors. Much more debris, too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions, exists in the near-Earth space environment.

“We believe there are probably between 300,000 and 600,000 things in space that are bigger than a golf ball. And a lot of these are traveling at a high speed 18,000 mph so it can cause a lot of damage if debris were to hit an active satellite or God forbid, people living on a space station itself,” Reddy said.

Whether it is a robotics spacecraft or crewed mission, Reddy said their goal is to ensure people and equipment are safe, and not threatened by space debris.

“We are trying to train the next generation and give them a chance to work on tackling space environmentalism and national security at the same time,” Reddy said.

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