A ROGUE rocket tumbling through space will provide scientists with a rare learning opportunity when it hits the Moon tomorrow.
The one-tonne booster's final moments will shed light on the ins and outs of space impacts, according to astronomer Dr Paul Hayne.
Writing in The Conversation this week, the University of Colorado Boulder physicist said that Friday represents an "exciting opportunity".
At some point that day – experts aren't sure when – a rocket booster will hit the lunar surface after spending eight years orbiting Earth.
It will be the first time a manmade object has crashed into another space body without being aimed there.
The collision will occur on the far side of the Moon as the one-tonne hunk of space junk is travelling at around 2.6 km per second.
"As a planetary scientist who studies the Moon, I view this unplanned impact as an exciting opportunity," Dr Hayne wrote.
"The Moon has been a steadfast witness to solar system history, its heavily cratered surface recording innumerable collisions over the last 4 billion years.
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"However, scientists rarely get a glimpse of the projectiles – usually asteroids or comets – that form these craters.
He added: "Without knowing the specifics of what created a crater, there is only so much scientists can learn by studying one."
The object is probably part of a rocket that launched a small Chinese spacecraft, called Chang’e 5-T1, towards the Moon in 2014.
It is expected to produce a cloud of debris and leave behind a small crater, though no serious damage will occur.
Once the dust has settled, Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will move into position to snap images of whatever's left behind.
These images could prove crucial to scientists hoping to get a better understanding of space collisions.
"The upcoming rocket impact will provide a fortuitous experiment that could reveal a lot about how natural collisions pummel and scour planetary surfaces," Dr Hayes wrote.
"A deeper understanding of impact physics will go a long way in helping researchers interpret the barren landscape of the Moon and also the effects impacts have on Earth and other planets."
In January, space trackers calculated that a piece of manmade debris was on course to hit the Moon.
It was first spotted by Bill Gray, who writes the popular Project Pluto software to track near-Earth objects.
He reported that the junk was a SpaceX Falcon 9 upper stage launched from Florida in February 2015.
It was on a mission to deploy an Earth observation satellite called DSCOVR for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
However, Bill later retracted his claim and said the rocket part most likely belonged to China. China has since denied the accusation.
As part of its LCROSS mission, in 2009 Nasa deliberately smashed a rocket booster into the Moon in hopes of learning something from the debris it left behind.
"In essence, this is a 'free' LCROSS… except we probably won't see the impact," Gray wrote in January.
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