NASA has photographed the crash site of the mysterious rocket that crashed into the far side of the moon in March, and the unidentified spacecraft left behind a strange double crater that puzzles scientists.
Images of the crash site were taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) on May 25 and published June 24. Photos show the wayward debris (whose origins are still disputed) somehow punctured two overlapping craters as it crashed across the moon traveling at around 5,770 mph (9,290 km/h).
The unexpected twin craters add an extra layer of weirdness to a mystery that has baffled space watchers since January, when Bill Gray, an American astronomer and software developer who tracks near-Earth objects, predicted that the orbiting piece of space junk would hit the far side of the moon within months, Live Science previously reported. When Gray first spotted the debris, he suggested it was the second stage of a Falcon X rocket launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2015. But later observations and analysis of orbital data have implied that the object was the passed the upper stage of the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 rocketspaceship (named after the chinese moon goddess) which was launched in 2014. Chinese officials, however, disagreed, saying that the upper stage of this rocket burned in Earth atmosphere years ago.
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To date, at least 47 NASA rocket bodies have crashed on the Moon, according to Arizona State Universitybut “the double crater was unexpected”, NASA written in a statement. “No other rocket body impacts on the Moon have created double craters.”
Although scientists were unable to directly observe the moment of impact, experts predicted that the discarded rocket stage struck the lunar surface at the Hertzsprung crater, on the other side of the moon, March 4 at 7:25 a.m. EST (12:25 GMT). LRO observations show both indentations on the lunar surface – the eastern crater is 59 feet (18 meters) wide, while the western crater is 52.5 feet (16 m) in diameter. Had NASA’s LRO been positioned to capture images of the impact, it would likely have documented the eruption of a plume of lunar dust hundreds of miles high.
Scientists are still speculating on what could have created the two craters. One possibility is that the craters were formed by a piece of debris that had two large masses on each end – although this scenario is unusual, NASA representatives said.
“Typically, a spent rocket has mass concentrated at the end of the engine; the rest of the rocket stage consists mostly of an empty fuel tank,” the statement said.
Is this really the Chang’e 5-T1 booster?
As the rocket booster is likely to have totally disintegrated on impact, it is uncertain whether the crater investigation will yield any significant clues to its controversial origin. But some astronomers think they’ve solved most of the mystery already. Gray wrote on his blog shortly after the images were released that the object is “quite conclusively identified as the Chang’e 5-T1 booster”.
“I’m pretty confident there’s no way it could be anything else,” Gray told Live Science. “At this point, we rarely get anything so certain.”
Gray made his first prediction that the controversial debris would collide with the moon after it was spotted falling through space in March 2015. The object (assigned to the temporary name WE0913A) was first sighted by the Catalina Sky Survey, a network of telescopes near Tucson, Arizona that scans our cosmic neighborhood for dangerous asteroids that could crash into Earth. However, WE0913A was not orbiting the sun, as an asteroid would, but orbiting the Earth. Gray suspects the object was man-made.
After initially misidentifying the mysterious trash can as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Gray returned to the data to discover that another spacecraft nearly matched the trajectory of moon-bound debris: the upper stage of China’s Chang mission. ‘e 5-T1. , launched in October 2014 as part of a preliminary mission to send a test capsule to the Moon and back.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials denied the space junk belonged to them, insisting the Chang’e 5 rocket had already burned up on its return trip to Earth in 2014. But US experts have disputed that claim. , suggesting that Chinese officials may be confusing the 2014 rocket with a similarly named rocket from a 2020 mission, and that the former is what hit the moon. On March 1, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Command, which tracks space debris in low Earth orbit, released a statement saying China’s 2014 rocket never desorbed.
Gray thinks his orbital data, which almost perfectly matches the initial trajectory of the Chinese rocket, is conclusive.
“It’s the orbit that a lot of lunar missions go through; its inclination means that in the past it was heading towards China; it was heading east like Chinese lunar missions do; and its time estimated launch time is within 20 hours of the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket’s minutes,” Gray said.
An amateur radio satellite (or “cubesat”) was attached to the Chang’e 5-T1 for the first 19 days of its flight, and the trajectory data returned by this satellite perfectly matches the current trajectory of the rocket debris, according to Gray. . Others have also identified important clues that support Gray’s conclusion; The Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed Gray’s analysis of orbital data, and a University of Arizona team identified the rocket as part of the Chang’e 5 mission. -T1 by analyzing the light spectrum reflected by the paint on the crushed debris. .
Although this is the first piece of space junk to accidentally collide with the Moon, it is not the first time that a man-made satellite has crashed into it. In 2009, NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Detection Satellite was deliberately launched into the moon’s south pole at 9,000 km/h, triggering a plume that allowed scientists to detect chemical signatures of the water ice. NASA also eliminated the Apollo Saturn V program rockets by launching them to the moon.
Gray said the confusion surrounding the identity of the object highlights a real need for space agencies and private companies around the world to develop better procedures to track the rockets they send into deep space ( which would also prevent these objects from being mistaken for Earth-threatening asteroids).
“From my selfish perspective, it would help us track asteroids better,” Gray said. “The care given to satellites in low Earth orbit was not applied to those in high Earth orbit because people thought that really didn’t matter. Hopefully, with the United States now considering a back to the moon and other countries sending stuff there too, that attitude might change.”
Originally posted on Live Science.