Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye in the sky in orbit around month – found the crash site of a mysterious rocket that hit the other side of the moon on March 4, 2022.
LRO images, taken on May 25, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater created by a rocket strike, a new mystery for astronomers to unravel.
Why a double crater? Although a bit unusual – none of that Apollo S-IVB which hit the Moon created double craters – it is not impossible to create them, especially if the object strikes at a small angle. But that does not seem to be the case here.
Astronomer Bill Gray, who first discovered the object and predicted its lunar collapse back in January, explains that the amplifier “entered about 15 degrees from the vertical. So that’s no explanation for this.”
The impact site consists of an 18-meter-wide eastern crater leaning against a 16-meter-wide western crater. Mark Robinson, principal investigator of the LRO Camera team, suggests that this double crater formation could be the result of an object with different, large masses at each end.
“Usually a spent rocket has mass concentrated at the end of the engine; the rest of the rocket stage consists mainly of an empty fuel tank. Since the origin of the rocket body is still uncertain, the dual nature of the crater can help indicate its identity,” He said.
So what is it?
It’s a long story. The unidentified rocket first caught the attention of astronomers earlier this year when it was identified as the upper phase of SpaceX, which launched NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) on the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange Point in 2015.
Gray, who designs software that tracks space debris, was alerted to an object when his software pinged the bug. He said The Washington Post Jan. 26 that “my software complained because it couldn’t project orbit after March 4, and it couldn’t do so because the rocket hit the moon.”
Gray spread the word, and the story went round and round 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 the DSCOVR orbit should not have taken the amplifier anywhere near the Moon. In an effort to reconcile the conflicting trajectories, Gray began digging for his data, where he discovered he had misidentified the DSCOVR booster back in 2015.
SpaceX, however, was not to blame. But there was definitely still an object racing toward the moon. So what was that?
A bit of detective work has led Gray to determine that this is actually the top phase of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission, a 2014 technology demonstration that laid the groundwork for Chang’e 5, which successfully returned the lunar pattern to Earth in 2020 (By the way , China recently announced that it will continue this sample return mission with a more ambitious one Return of the sample to Mars project later this decade).
Jonathan McDowell offered some corroborating evidence that seems to have supported this new theory of object identity.
The mystery was solved.
Except that, a few days later, the Chinese foreign minister claimed it wasn’t their booster: it derailed and crashed into the ocean shortly after launch.
As it stands now, Gray remains convinced that the Change 5-T1 booster hit the Moon, suggesting that the Secretary of State made a fair mistake, confusing the Chang’e 5-T1 with a similar name Chang’e 5 (whose booster made it really sink into the ocean ).
As for the new double crater 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 months after the crash, with a little help from Gray and JPL, who each narrowed the search area to a few dozen miles each.
By comparison, the crash site of the Apollo 16 S-IVB took more than six years of careful searching.
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