Imagine, if you will, a rocket crashing on the lunar surface. The crash site is peculiar unlike others. The rocket itself comes from an unknown location. It is not The Twilight Zone, it’s the reality. Last month, NASA revealed that a type of rocket with a strange impact crater has crashed on the moon.
On June 24, NASA released images of the lunar crash site taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in May. According to the space agency, whatever hit the lunar surface arrived on March 4, having been spotted on a trajectory with the moon in late 2021. The moon is covered in craters, several from previous rocket component impacts, but this new one is unique because they are two separate, overlapping impact points. Whatever hit the moon did so in such a way that an 18-meter crater overlapped a 16-meter crater. As NASA noted, this means each end of the rocket had a large amount of mass, which is unusual for these types of impacts.
But no one knows where the rocket came from. NASA can say that the rocket was at least in space late last year, on course for a hard collision with the moon. But who sent it or why? This is a riddle. And outside of NASA, US Space Command, Space Force, and even the entire Department of Defense, all is quiet. There are theories, but nothing is confirmed.
“As the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the dual nature of the crater could indicate its identity,” NASA said in its statement.
And no, they’re probably not aliens. This is not independence Day.
Why doesn’t NASA know this? It’s NASA and the moon is relatively close. The United States and its allies have satellites, telescopes, and enough tracking software to keep track of what’s going into space and where. Missile launches are traceable — every time North Korea tests a ballistic missile, the intelligence and military world is pretty quick to identify the path, range, and possible launch point. This particular incident looks like a job for the Space Force. The service department has sentinels who monitor satellites and low-orbit missiles and track their paths. The moon is a little further out, but the Space Force is trying to expand their patrols further out. But so far the Space Force says nothing.
Why is the origin of this rocket unclear? Different branches of the military and government have historically been rivals or at odds, but missile launches traverse different realms and seem like the kind of topic that would stimulate information sharing. Dozens of rocket parts, from boosters to other components, have impacted the lunar surface. In 2009, NASA even intentionally bombarded the moon as part of an experiment examining potential water on the satellite. But this case seems to be more coincidence than experiment.
However, there is a likely theory. It was then that the March 4 crash was reported. The leading theory of scientists is that it was the third stage booster of the Chinese CHANG’E 5-T1 rocket, launched in 2014. The 18th Space Control Squadron, which is responsible for tracking space satellites, originally reported the rocket booster as burned up but has since changed its status to still in orbit. In March, the squadron issued a statement to The Verge saying the piece of rocket had not de-orbited, but it was unclear if this had hit the lunar surface.
So is the Chinese rocket the source of this strange double crater? Space observers have yet to confirm or deny the theory. Neither the 18th Space Control Squadron nor the broader Space Force have commented on NASA’s images and releases as of press time. But whether it was the CHANG’E 5-T1 that created the double crater is also unclear.
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