Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), NASA’s “eye in the sky” that orbits Earth’s natural satelliteof the year, found the crater of the crashed rocket on the moon on March 4, 2022.
The LRO images, captured on May 25, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater formed by the rocket’s impact, raising new questions for astronomers to answer.
Why a double crater? Although somewhat unusual (none of the Apollo S-IVB rockets that hit the Moon created double craters), it is not impossible to create, especially if an object hits at a low angle. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here, he writes Science Alert.
The crashed rocket crater on the moon is unusual
Astronomer Bill Gray, who first discovered the object and predicted it would crash into the moon in January, explains that the booster “came about 15 degrees off vertical. So this is not the explanation for the crashed rocket crater on the moon.”
The impact site consists of an 18-meter-wide eastern crater superimposed on a 16-meter-wide western crater. Mark Robinson, principal investigator of the LRO Camera team, proposes that this double crater formation could result from an object with distinct, large masses at either end.
“Typically, a spent rocket has its mass concentrated at the end of the engine; the rest of the rocket stage consists mainly of an empty fuel tank. As the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the dual nature of the crater may help indicate the identity of the rocket,” he said.
So what rocket was it?
It’s a long story. The unidentified rocket first came to astronomers’ attention in early 2022, when it was identified as an upper stage of SpaceX, which launched NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the L1 Sun-Earth Lagrange point in 2015.
Gray, who designs software that tracks space debris, was alerted to the object when his software generated an error. He told The Washington Post on January 26 that “my software ‘complained’ that it couldn’t do an orbit projection after March 4th; the program couldn’t do that because the rocket was going to hit the moon.”
Gray spread the word, and the story went around the world in late January; but a few weeks later, he received an email from Jon Giorgini of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).
Giorgini pointed out that DSCOVR’s trajectory was not supposed to take the rocket’s booster close to the Moon. In an effort to solve the trajectories problem, Gray began digging back into his data, where he discovered that he had misidentified the DSCOVR amplifier back in 2015.
The company SpaceX is not to blame for the crater of the crashed rocket on the moon
After all, SpaceX wasn’t to blame. But there was definitely still an object headed for the moon. Who did it belong to?
A bit of detective work led Gray to determine that it was, in fact, the upper stage of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission, a 2014 technology demonstration mission that laid the groundwork for Chang’e 5, which successfully returned a lunar sample to Earth in 2020. (Incidentally, China recently announced that it will follow up this sample return mission with an even more ambitious project to return samples from Mars later this decade).
Jonathan McDowell provided some evidence that seemed to support this new theory for the object’s identity. The mystery seemed solved.
But a few days later, China’s foreign minister claimed that it wasn’t their booster: Their rocket went out of orbit and crashed into the ocean shortly after launch, the minister said.
A little confusion
Currently, Gray remains convinced that the Change 5-T1 booster was the one that hit the Moon, suggesting that the Secretary of State made an honest mistake by confusing Chang’e 5-T1 with Chang’e 5 due to the similar name (the rocket booster from then it really sank into the ocean).
And as for the crater of the crashed rocket on the Moon, the fact that the LRO team was able to find the impact site so quickly is an impressive feat in itself. It was discovered just a few months after the impact, with a little help from Gray and JPL, who each independently narrowed the search area to a few tens of kilometers.
In comparison, the impact site of Apollo 16 S-IVB was found after more than 6 years of careful searching.