You know you’re living in the space age when a rocket hits the moon, the industry as a whole takes to the sky, and like an angry teacher holding a kite, asks “Who launched this?!” Really, that’s what happened this week when an unknown (!) rocket stage hit the lunar surface, New and interesting hole formation And it left us all wondering how we might not know what happened.
The short version of this story is that sky watchers Led by Bill Gray He had been tracking something for months that, based on their calculations, would soon affect the moon. It was clearly a piece of rocket waste (missiles produce a ton of rubbish), but no one came forward to say “Yeah, this is ours, sorry about that.”
Based on their observations and discussions, these same trackers decided (though by no means lacking in experience) that it was likely a piece of SpaceX’s launch vehicle from 2015. But SpaceX didn’t adapt to it, and after a while Gray and others decided, Including NASA, it is likely to be 2014 Chang’e 5-T1 Launch outside of China. China denied this was the case, saying that the launch vehicle in question had burnt up on its return.
Maybe they are telling the truth. Perhaps they don’t want to be responsible for the first completely unintended lunar collision in history. Other spacecraft hit the Moon, but they were on purpose or part of a failed landing (in other words, the effect was intended, a little harder than expected) — not just a stray piece of junk space.
We’ll probably never know, and that really is the weirdest part of it all. With hundreds of ground-based telescopes and radars, networks of space sensors and cameras pointing in every direction – this is just the space watch we know! – It seems surprising that a complete rocket stage managed to stay in orbit for six or seven years, and eventually reached the moon, without being identified.
I thought someone in lyolabes, which has been building a new network of debris-tracking radar around the world, may have little insight. Darren McKnight, Senior Tech Fellow there, had the following answers to my questions.
How could we not know the identity and trajectory of such a large object that was launched relatively recently?
Tracking neglected objects in lunar orbit probably won’t be a high priority for government sensors when they can spend that time observing satellites or space junk closer to Earth. However, tracking and monitoring operational satellites in orbit around the Moon is, in fact, critical to strategic intelligence, as it is new high ground.
Could confusion like this happen to an object being fired now?
Yes, this could happen again now because the technology used by the US government to track space objects has not changed in many years.
Is there likely to be more of these “mysteries” making effects here and there over the next few years?
An accidental lunar strike like this could happen again in the future, depending on how many missions put rocket objects into those orbits and give enough time (years or decades). But events like this should generally remain extremely rare.
As Bill Gray notes in his writing:
… High-altitude litter wasn’t a concern for anyone outside of asteroid surveys, and we weren’t even worried about it. Objects of this type are not tracked by the US Space Force; They use (mostly) radar, which is “near-sighted”: it can track four-inch/10cm-diameter objects in low orbits, but can’t see large rocket phases like this when they are as far away as the moon. You need telescopes for that.
It seems strange (to me, anyway), that the orbits for objects of this type are calculated only by me, in my spare time.
It’s cool in a way, but as anyone in the world of space observation will tell you, there’s a lot to look at out there and you have to choose your targets. An object the size of a rocket halfway to the moon is neither easy nor easy to get a good picture of.
Perhaps our best clue as to the identity of the object is the crater it left when it hit. The impact site was photographed shortly thereafter and has a strange double O-shaped shape: two overlapping craters, one 18 m and the other 16 m. Here’s the before and after:
The double crater was unexpected and might indicate that the rocket body had large masses at each end. The mass of the spent rocket is usually concentrated at the end of the engine; “The remainder of the rocket stage consists essentially of an empty fuel tank,” NASA’s Mark Robinson wrote.
Although it’s an attractive mystery, the truth is that there doesn’t seem to be much reason to devote any serious resources to its discovery. Weirder things happen in space than for a piece of a rocket to fly at the exact angle and speed required to eventually hit the moon. And for all we know, someone out there is well aware of what this weird two-ended piece of space junk is, but prefers to keep it quiet.
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