A leftover piece of a spacecraft flying through space reportedly hit the surface of the moon, creating a new crater that may be around 65 feet wide.
The piece of space junk was earlier believed to be a SpaceX rocket, but was later said to be the third-stage booster of Chang’e 5-T1 – a lunar mission launched by the China National Space Administration in 2014.
China, however, denied responsibility, saying that the booster in question had “safely entered the earth’s atmosphere and was completely incinerated”.
According to orbital calculations, the collision took place on March 4 at 5.55 p.m. IST on the far side of the moon.
The object reportedly weighs around four tonnes and was racing towards the moon at a speed of 9,300 km an hour.
The speed, trajectory, and time of impact were calculated using earth-based telescope observations.
How will the impact be confirmed?
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter are two active lunar missions that are capable of observing the crater and picturing it.
The location of the impact on the far side of the moon has made it difficult for the crater to be pictured and studied immediately.
Is the crater permanent?
- Both the earth and the moon have been hit by multiple objects like asteroids throughout their existence, but craters on the moon are of a more permanent nature than those on earth.
- This is because of processes like erosion, tectonics, and volcanism. According to NASA, these three processes keep the surface of the earth crater-free and remove traces of collisions that have happened in the past.
- Currently, the earth has less than 200 known craters while the moon has thousands.
- An absence of atmosphere means there is no wind system and no weather on the moon, and hence no cause for erosion of existing craters.
- Absence of tectonics prevents the moon’s surface from forming new rocks, or causing a shift in the existing surface patterns, unlike that on earth.
- Lastly, absence of volcanism makes it impossible for craters to be covered.
Floating space junk in the space:
- The emerging problem of floating space junk is becoming more and more evident and bothersome.
- A report in 2011 by the National Research Council (NRC) warned NASA that the amount of space debris orbiting the Earth was at critical level.
- Any impact between two objects of sizeable mass can produce shrapnel debris from the force of collision.
- Each piece of shrapnel has the potential to cause further damage, creating even more space debris.
- The space debris problem is a multi-faceted problem, one that has technological, legal, financial, political, etc. issues that must all be addressed in any long-lasting solution.
The real amount of space debris is said to be between 500,000 and one million pieces as current sensor technology cannot detect smaller objects.
They all travel at speeds of up to 17,500 mph (28,162 kmph) fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
ISRO’S Project NETRA and it’s significance:
The ISRO has commenced Project NETRA or Network for space object Tracking and Analysis, which aims to safeguard the country’s Low-Earth Orbit satellites from space debris.
- NETRA is a network of observational tools like telescopes and radars, which will be connected to a data processing units and a control centre. The system will improve India’s space situational awareness.
- Space debris such as inactive satellites, pieces of orbiting objects and near-earth asteroids can be hazardous to satellites. The NETRA would prevent danger from such space debris.
- NETRA will initially focus on satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (defined as an altitude ranging from 160 to 2,000 km above Earth), but will aim to one day scan debris in Geostationary Orbit, 36,000 km in space, which would enhance ISRO’s capabilities.
- With this the ISRO, which has placed satellites to track the earth from above, will also start training its eyes on space from earth.
- ISRO currently depends on NORAD-North American Aerospace Defense Command-to detect potential threats to its satellites in space. NETRA will remove ISRO’s dependence on NORAD and allow it to become self-dependent.
- It will give India its own capability in space situational awareness (SSA) like the other space powers which is used to predict threats from debris to Indian satellites.
- The SSA also has a military quotient to it and adds a new ring to the country’s overall security, as space and defence experts read it. It will serve as an unstated warning against missile or space attack for the country.
The space debris problem is an issue that needs a worldwide cooperation to solve it. India, as a responsible space power, and as a part of a national capability, deployed NETRA that would help in reducing threat from space debris.
This is a vital requirement for protecting our space assets and would act as a force multiplier.
Apart from radars and telescopes, India should also think of deploying satellites that track other satellites, as the U.S. and other space powers had done.