NASA has photographed the crash site of the mysterious rocket that slammed into the far side of the moon in March, and the unidentified spacecraft left a strange double crater in its wake that has scientists baffling.
Images of the crash site were captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) on May 25 released on June 24th. The photos show that the wayward debris (the origin of which is still a matter of debate) somehow punched out two overlapping craters as it impacted the crater’s far side moon traveling at approximately 9,290 km/h (5,770 mph).
The unexpected twin craters add an extra layer of strangeness to a mystery that has puzzled space observers since January, when Bill Gray, a US astronomer and developer of software that tracks near-Earth objects, predicted that the orbiting piece of space debris would hit the far side of the moon in a matter of 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 Spent upper stage of the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 rocketa spaceship (named after the Chinese moon goddess) which was launched in 2014. However, Chinese officials disagreed, claiming that the upper stage of that rocket burned up Earth atmosphere years ago.
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To date, at least 47 NASA rocket bodies have crashed on the moon University of Arizonabut “the double crater was unexpected,” NASA wrote in a statement. “No other rocket body impact on the moon has created double craters.”
Although scientists could not directly observe the moment of impact, experts predicted that at 7:25 a.m. EST (12:25 GMT) on March 4, the discarded rocket stage impacted the lunar surface at Hertzsprung Crater on the far side of the moon. LRO observations show the two indentations on the lunar surface – the eastern crater is 18 meters wide, while the western crater is 16 meters in diameter. If NASA’s LRO had been positioned to capture images of the impact, it likely would have documented a plume of lunar dust erupting hundreds of kilometers high.
Scientists are still hypothesizing what might have caused the two craters. One possibility is that the craters were formed by a piece of debris that had two large masses at each end — although that scenario would be unusual, NASA officials said.
“Typically, the mass of a spent rocket is concentrated at the motor end; the rest of the rocket stage consists primarily of an empty fuel tank,” the statement said.
Is it really the Chang’e 5-T1 booster?
Because the rocket engine likely disintegrated completely on impact, it’s uncertain whether examining the craters will provide any major clues as to its disputed origin. But some astronomers believe they have already figured out most of the mystery. Gray wrote on his blog shortly after the images were posted that the object was “pretty positively identified as a Chang’e 5-T1 booster.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s no way it could be anything else,” Gray told Live Science. “At this point, we rarely get anything this secure.”
Gray made his first prediction that the disputed debris would collide with the moon after it was spotted tumbling through space in March 2015. The object (tentatively named WE0913A) was first spotted by the Catalina Sky Survey, a series of telescopes near Tucson. Arizona scanning our cosmic neighborhood for dangerous asteroids that could impact Earth. However, WE0913A did not orbit the Sun like an asteroid would, but instead orbited the Earth. Gray suspected that the object was man-made.
After Gray initially misidentified the mysterious junk as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Gray returned to the data and found another spacecraft coming close to the trajectory of the moon-bound debris: the upper stage of China’s Chang’e 5 -T1 mission, launched in October 2014 as part of an interim mission to send a test capsule to the Moon and back.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have denied that the space debris belongs to them, insisting the Chang’e 5 rocket burned up on its return journey to Earth in 2014. However, US experts disputed this claim and suggested that Chinese officials may be confusing the 2014 rocket with a similarly named rocket from a 2020 mission, and that the former hit the moon. On March 1, the US Department of Defense Space Command, which tracks space debris in low-Earth orbit, released a statement saying China’s 2014 rocket never left orbit.
Gray believes its orbital data, which matches the Chinese rocket’s original trajectory almost perfectly, is conclusive.
“It’s in the orbit that a lot of lunar missions occupy; its tilt means it has flown over China in the past; it flew east, as Chinese lunar missions do; and its estimated launch time is within 20 minutes of the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket,” Gray said.
A ham 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 that satellite perfectly matches the current trajectory of the missile debris, according to Gray. Others have also identified important clues that support Gray’s conclusion; NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies confirmed Gray’s analysis of the orbital data, and a team from the University of Arizona identified the rocket as part of the Chang’e 5-T1 mission by analyzing the light spectrum, which varies from color to color reflected off the fallen debris.
Although this is the first piece of space junk to accidentally collide with the moon, it’s not the first time a man-made satellite has crashed there. In 2009, NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite was deliberately shot at the moon’s south pole at 5,600 mph (9,000 km/h), releasing a cloud that allowed scientists to see the chemical signatures of water ice. NASA also disposed of the Apollo program’s Saturn V rockets by hurling them onto the moon.
Gray said the confusion surrounding the object’s identity highlights the real need for space agencies and private companies everywhere to develop better ways of tracking the rockets they send into space (which would also prevent such objects from being confused with Earth-threatening asteroids ). .
“From my selfish point of view, it would help us track asteroids better,” Gray said. “The care given to satellites in low Earth orbit hasn’t been applied to those in low Earth orbit because people thought it really didn’t matter. I hope so, as the US is now considering going back to the moon and other countries, if you send stuff there too, that attitude might change.”
Originally published on Live Science.