Discarded ‘Chinese’ rocket ‘HITS the moon’

Daily Mail

A discarded rocket that is believed to belong to China should have crashed into the moon’s far side by now, scientists say.

The three-tonne piece of space junk would have left a massive crater if it smashed into the lunar surface as expected at 12:25 GMT (07:25 ET) today. 

Astronomers first thought the rocket part had been launched by Elon Musk‘s SpaceX in 2015, before changing their mind and saying it was Chinese, something Beijing denies.

Scientists hope to get confirmation of the 5,800mph impact in the coming days, or weeks.

It would mark the first time that a piece of space junk has accidentally struck the lunar surface.

The spent rocket part is believed to be from China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in 2014.

Experts said it may take weeks to confirm the impact with the help of satellite images.

Low-orbiting space junk is relatively easy to track but because objects launching deeper into space are unlikely to hit anything, they are usually forgotten about by everybody but a handful of observers.

The leftover booster was originally thought to belong to SpaceX after asteroid tracker Bill Gray identified the collision course in January.

But he corrected himself a month later, saying the ‘mystery’ object was not a Falcon rocket upper stage from the 2015 launch of a deep space climate observatory for NASA.

Gray said it was likely the third stage of a Chinese rocket that sent a test sample capsule to the moon and back in 2014, but Chinese ministry officials said the upper stage had re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up.

However, there were two Chinese missions with similar designations — the test flight and 2020’s lunar sample return mission — and US observers believe the two have been confused.

The US Space Command, which tracks lower space junk, confirmed Tuesday that the Chinese upper stage from the 2014 lunar mission never deorbited, as previously indicated in its database.

But it could not confirm the country of origin for the object about to strike the moon.

‘We focus on objects closer to the Earth,’ a spokesperson said in a statement.

Gray, a mathematician and physicist, said he is now confident that it is China’s rocket.

‘I’ve become a little bit more cautious of such matters,’ he said. ‘But I really just don’t see any way it could be anything else.’

Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, supported Gray’s revised assessment, but added: ‘The effect will be the same. It’ll leave yet another small crater on the moon.’

The moon already bears countless craters, ranging up to 1,600 miles (2,500 kilometers).

With little to no real atmosphere, the moon is defenseless against the constant barrage of meteors and asteroids, and the occasional incoming spacecraft, including a few intentionally crashed for science’s sake.

With no weather, there’s no erosion and so impact craters last forever.

China has a lunar lander on the moon’s far side, but it will be too far away to detect Friday’s impact just north of the equator.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will also be out of range, while it is unlikely that India’s moon-orbiting Chandrayaan-2 will be passing by then, either.

‘I had been hoping for something (significant) to hit the moon for a long time. Ideally, it would have hit on the near side of the moon at some point where we could actually see it,’ Gray said.

After initially pinning the upcoming strike on Elon Musk´s SpaceX, Gray took another look after an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory questioned his claim.

Now, he is ‘pretty thoroughly persuaded’ it is a Chinese rocket part, based not only on orbital tracking back to its 2014 liftoff, but also data received from its short-lived ham radio experiment.

JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies endorses Gray’s reassessment.

A University of Arizona team also recently identified the Chinese Long March rocket segment from the light reflected off its paint, during telescope observations of the careening cylinder.

It is about 40 feet (12 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter.

Gray said SpaceX never contacted him to challenge his original claim and neither have the Chinese.

‘It’s not a SpaceX problem, nor is it a China problem. Nobody is particularly careful about what they do with junk at this sort of orbit,’ Gray said.

Tracking deep space mission leftovers like this is hard, according to McDowell. The moon’s gravity can alter an object’s path during flybys, creating uncertainty. And there’s no readily available database, McDowell noted, aside from the ones ‘cobbled together’ by himself, Gray and a couple others.

‘We are now in an era where many countries and private companies are putting stuff in deep space, so it’s time to start to keep track of it,’ McDowell said. ‘Right now there’s no one, just a few fans in their spare time.’

Jacob Geer, head of space surveillance and tracking at the UK Space Agency, said: ‘Although this particular piece of space junk isn’t likely to cause any significant damage, we are concerned about the growing amount of debris in orbit above the Earth.

‘This debris could collide at any time with the satellites we depend upon every day for navigation, banking and communications.

‘That’s why the UK is taking action, by funding new technology to track or even remove debris from space and working with international partners, including the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs to lead efforts to promote space sustainability.’


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