A piece of a Chinese rocket landed on the moon this morning

After years of zooming through deep space, the remnants of a supposed Chinese rocket landed on the moon today, just as space-tracking experts predicted. at least should It hit the moon at about 7:30 a.m. ET this morning, as long as the law of gravity remains unchanged. The collision ends the rocket’s life in space, potentially leaving a new crater on the moon’s surface that could be up to 65 feet wide.

The expiring missile caused quite a stir last month. First of all, the craft was not intended to smash into the moon, making it a rare piece of space debris to find its way to the moon’s surface by accident. In addition, there has been some confusion about his identity, as various groups have attempted to determine exactly where the missile came from.

Originally, space trackers thought it was Leftover piece of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched a weather satellite in 2015. But after careful analysis, various groups of space trackers confirmed that the missile was. Likely leftovers from the launch of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission A flight launched in 2014 to test the technology needed to return samples from the Moon. That mission, launched on a Chinese Long March 3C rocket, sent a spacecraft to orbit the moon in an effort to see if China could send a craft to the moon and then return it to Earth. Given the flight profile of the Chang’e 5-T1 mission and tracking the mysterious object, astronomers are pretty sure that part of the Long March 3C rocket has remained in an extremely prolonged orbit around Earth since then, only to find its way to the far side of the Moon.

China He tried to deny that the missile belonged to the country’s space program, claiming that the missile has already returned to our planet and fallen into the atmosphere. “According to China’s monitoring, the upper stage of the Chang’e-5 mission missile fell through the Earth’s atmosphere in a safe manner and completely burned up,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, He said during a press conference In February, after the trackers changed the missile’s identity. However, Wang may have confused his duties in China. Chang’e-5 was a completely different mission launched in 2020, while astronomers believe this rocket originated from Chang’e 5-T1 The mission that happened six years ago.

Another confusion centered around the fact that the 18th Space Force Control Squadron (18SPCS) — which tracks space debris around Earth — noted on its tracking website that the rocket from the Chang’e 5-T1 mission returned to our planet about a year after The launch was burnt up in our atmosphere. However, 18SPCS later confirmed in a statement to the edge An Long March 3C of the trip I did not In fact, it has re-entered our atmosphere and has been in space since its launch.

Long March 3C missile carrying Chan

China’s Long March 3C missile
Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Although the 18SPCS update lends credence to the idea that the missile is from the Chang’e 5-T1 mission, it won’t confirm with certainty that this is the object’s origin. “The 18th Space Control Squadron is currently determining the appropriate update of the space index,” said a statement sent by Maj. the edge. “While the US Space Command can confirm that the CHANG’E 5-T1 rocket body will never leave orbit, we cannot confirm the country of origin of the rocket body that may collide with the Moon.”

The reason 18SPCS doesn’t have good data here is because it doesn’t really care about tracking deep space debris like this. 18SPCS is focusing more on tracking space debris in orbits closer to Earth, as the space environment there has become more crowded. This group of organisms has grown extensively over the past few decades, Especially after Russia deliberately destroyed one of its satellites During an anti-satellite test, or ASAT, in November. 18SPCS claimed that once the Chang’e 5-T1 missile passed more than 22,000 miles outside Earth, their official trackers were not given priority after the object. They plan to revise the database, however, to reflect more current information.

But while 18SPCS can’t confirm or deny the source of the space debris, astronomers are pretty sure the rocket is from Chang’e 5-T1 And the It is now being smashed to the surface of the moon. It was the fall of the missile It was first predicted by Bill GrayHe is a working astronomer and asteroid tracker Project Plutowho has been following the missile closely for the past few months.

The collision shouldn’t really be a cause for concern, especially since we’ve hit a lot of objects on the Moon before. Pieces of rockets from the Apollo missions were sent to the Moon on the lunar surface, and NASA crashed a spacecraft on the Moon in 2009 called LCROSS in order to blow up some lunar dirt and find out what material was lurking beneath the surface. All past crashes were usually on purpose, and those that didn’t involve a lunar landing or a lunar-bound vehicle going a very rough road. This may be the first time a spacecraft that wasn’t supposed to go to the moon’s surface has reached there anyway. Or at least, this is the first time we know something about it.

Gray et al used this episode as a case Why do we need better plans to get rid of deep space debris And why do we need to track garbage that goes to very high altitudes like this. But now that the rocket has collided, its remains could be fascinating to study. The team behind NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is currently orbiting the moon, says they will try to see the aftermath of the crash if they can. Gray predicted that the rocket had hit the moon in a distant crater called Hertzsprung.

“We definitely have an interest in finding the impact crater and will try to do that over the next weeks and months,” John Keeler, deputy project scientist for the Lunar Orbital Reconnaissance mission, sent to the edge in the current situation. We won’t be near the impact site when it happens, so we won’t be able to directly observe it. The onboard narrow-angle cameras have sufficient accuracy to detect the crater, but the moon is full of modern impact craters, so positive identification is based on before and after images in similar lighting conditions.”

Hopefully the LRO team can find it and give us a picture of the Long March 3C’s final resting place, and maybe we can use this whole ordeal as an opportunity to see what kinds of materials the impact was able to extract.

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