On or about March 4, some experts believe that part of a Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX is going to crash its 8,000 pounds of force into the moon at about 5,500 miles per hour. We don’t know exactly when or where — we’ve been tracking space junk in earnest for only about 15 years, and we’re only just now getting the hang of it.
We do know the roughly 40-foot-long piece was part of a rocket that went up five years ago to carry the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Space Climate Observatory more than 600,000 miles into space. But it did not have enough fuel to make it back to Earth, so it has been on a chaotic orbit around the planet since 2018.
The crash won’t be visible from Earth — it, alas, will take place on the dark side of the moon. But scientists are looking forward to seeing what, if anything, emerges from beneath the moon’s surface after the collision.
Even if this crash wasn’t Musk’s doing, as some allege, Musk is still without question the world’s biggest space slob. His Starlink satellites, which beam high-speed internet from satellites, as well as debris from failed missions account for 1,600 close encounters per week, which is when spacecraft come within three-fifths of a mile from each other.
A European satellite had to dodge at the last minute to avoid a collision with a SpaceX satellite when the SpaceX craft refused to change course. SpaceX officials said they didn’t get the email the previous day raising the concern.
Most of the encounters are handled easily, but many force both the Starlink craft and other satellites to take steps to maneuver to avoid impact. These maneuvers throw the spacecraft off course and expend energy.
Starlink operates 1,700 satellites, the most in the world. It is engaged in so many course corrections that it is hard to accurately track the movement of its satellites to be able to avoid them.
Starlink plans to launch about 12,000 satellites for its initial constellation. When that occurs, scientists estimate it will be involved in 90 percent of all close approaches.
The crash-avoidance system on 2.5 percent of its satellites has already malfunctioned, which means they can’t be maneuvered to avoid crashes.
Thanks to more than 500 “fragmentation events” — crashes, implosions, and whatnot — we now have more than 130 million bits of debris in Earth’s orbit, circling the planet at roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet. What can go wrong? Nothing, unless you would like to get a spaceship safely through that belt of fast-flying trash.
There’s something called the Kessler syndrome, named for the former NASA Administrator David Kessler. It’s when there is so much debris that space is basically impassable. We may not be far from that day, experts say. (READ MORE: Elon Musk Should Provide Hope For All, Especially Gen Z)
That’s why relying on Musk is so risky.
“We place trust in a single company to do the right thing,” Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton in the U.K. told space.com, referring to NASA’s increasing dependence on Musk to explore the moon and, later, Mars.
“We are in a situation where most of the maneuvers we see will involve Starlink. They were a launch provider before, now they are the world’s biggest satellite operator, but they have only been doing that for two years so there is a certain amount of inexperience.”
Others in the industry are saying it might be time to regulate. If Musk doesn’t want that to happen, he should get his house in order now.
Jerry Rogers is the vice president of the Institute for Liberty.