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Elon Musk Moon
Courtesy of NASA

Will Elon Musk kill the moon? An investigation

A SpaceX rocket is predicted to crash into the moon on March 4

Between the ongoing pandemic, growing conflicts, and the imminent threat of climate catastrophe, the odds are stacked against humanity. Now, doomsayers will have another existential threat to add to the neverending list of things to fret about. After spending seven years hurtling across space, a rogue SpaceX rocket is on a collision course with the moon in what has been described as the first unintended lunar impact in history. 

The NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory was originally launched back in 2015 as part of an interplanetary mission to send a space weather satellite into orbit. But after a million-mile journey, the rocket’s engine gave way – it didn’t have enough fuel to return to Earth’s atmosphere, but also “lacked the energy to escape the gravity of the Earth-Moon system”, meteorologist Eric Berger explained in a recent post on Ars Technica.

Now, the four tonnes of space junk is on its way to crash with the moon at a velocity of about 2.58km/s in a matter of weeks. According to a recent blog post by data analyst Bill Gray, the rocket skimmed past the moon on January 5, but will make “a certain impact on March 4”. “This is the first unintentional case (of space junk hitting the moon) of which I am aware,” Gray said.

As for the effects of the crash on Earth, apparently it’s not as bad as it sounds. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, says the impact is “not a big deal”, while Gray maintains that it’s likely we won’t see the collision from Earth. “Managing the return of the stage (rocket) to re-enter the atmosphere in a controlled and safe way is extremely complex,” Holger Krag, the European Space Association’s head of space safety programme office, tells Dazed.

He maintains that a moon collision is the safest bet for humanity as “leaving it drifting around an orbit around the Sun does not provide insurance that it will not be captured again by Earth one day”. He adds: “An uncontrolled re-entry on Earth is less favourable.”

While lunar destruction is off the cards for the time being, the collision does raise questions as to the ethics of privatised space companies like SpaceX. With space tourism taking flight and film crews blasting off into the cosmos, human intervention in space is only getting more extreme.

Last year, videos surfaced of SpaceX and NASA launching a spacecraft into an asteroid as part of an experiment for future planetary defence systems. It’s an unsettling development in humanity’s relationship with the solar system we inhabit – one in which we don’t just float through it, but exert influence on its orbital systems. Maybe death-by-space junk will be humanity’s answer to the meteor that killed the dinosaurs – that is, if other extinction-level issues, such as the climate crisis, don’t destroy us first.