Astronomers found a crater from the mysterious rocket that shattered into the moon

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye-in-the-sky in orbit around the moon – has found the crash site of the mysterious rocket launcher that crashed into the other side of the moon on March 4, 2022.

The LRO images, taken on May 25, revealed not only a single crater, but a double crater formed by the impact of the rocket, and constitute a new mystery for astronomers to solve.

Why a double crater? Although somewhat unusual – none of the Apollo S-IVBs that hit the moon created double craters – they are not impossible to make, especially if an object hits at a low angle. But that does not seem to be the case here.

Astronomer Bill Gray, who first discovered the object and predicted the moon’s death back in January, explains that the booster “came in about 15 degrees from the vertical. So that’s not the explanation.”

The impact site consists of an 18 meter wide eastern crater laid over a 16 meter wide western crater. Mark Robinson, lead investigator for the LRO Camera team, suggests that this double crater formation may be due to an object with distinct, large masses at each end.

Before (2022-02-28) and after image (2022-05-21) of the moon. (NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University)

“Typically, a used rocket mass is concentrated at the engine end; 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 identity,” he said.

So what is it?

It’s a long story. The unidentified rocket first came to astronomers’ attention earlier this year when it was identified as a SpaceX upper stage, which had launched NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange Point in 2015.

Gray, who designs software that tracks space debris, was notified of the object when his software pinged an error. He told The Washington Post January 26 that “my software complained because it could not project the orbit past March 4, and it could not do so because the rocket had hit the Moon.”

Gray spread the word, and the story went around in late January – but a few weeks later he received an email from Jon Giorgini at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Giorgini pointed out that DSCOVR’s orbit should not have taken the booster near the moon. In an attempt to reconcile the conflicting paths, Gray began digging back into his data, where he discovered that he had misidentified the DSCOVR booster back in 2015.

After all, SpaceX was not the culprit. But it was definitely still an object storming towards the moon. So what was it?

A bit of detective work led Gray to find out that it was actually the upper phase of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission, a technology demonstration mission from 2014 that laid the foundation for Chang’e 5, which successfully returned a lunar sample to Earth in 2020 ( China also recently announced that it would follow up this test mission with a more ambitious Mars test return project later this decade).

Jonathan McDowell offered some confirmatory evidence that seemed to strengthen this new theory of the object’s identity.

The mystery was solved.

Except, days later, China’s foreign minister claimed it was not their booster: it had gone out of range and plunged into the sea shortly after launch.

As it stands now, Gray is still convinced that it was the Change 5-T1 booster that hit the moon, and suggests that the Secretary of State made an honest mistake, confusing Chang’e 5-T1 with the correspondingly named Chang’e 5 (if the booster did it actually sink into the ocean).

When it comes to the new double crater on the Moon, it is an impressive feat in itself that the LRO team managed to find the crash site so quickly. It was discovered just months after the collision, with some help from Gray and JPL, who each independently limited the search area to a few dozen kilometers.

In comparison, the Apollo 16 S-IVB crash site took more than six years of careful searching to find.

Bill Gray’s account of the booster identification saga is here, as is his view of the double crater. The LRO pictures can be found here.

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.