New double crater seen on the moon after a mysterious rocket launch

New images shared by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has orbited the moon since 2009, have revealed the location of the unusual crater.

The impact created two overlapping craters, an eastern crater measuring 59 feet (18 meters) across and a western crater spanning 52.5 feet (16 meters). Together, they create a depression that is approximately 91.8 feet (28 meters) wide in the longest dimension.

Although astronomers expected the impact after discovering that the rocket part was about to collide with the moon, the double crater it created was a surprise.

Usually used rockets have the most mass at the engine end because the rest of the rocket is mostly just an empty fuel tank. But the double crater suggests that this object had large masses at both ends when it hit the moon.

The exact origin of the rocket body, a piece of space debris that had been around for years, is unclear, so the double crater can help astronomers find out what it was.

The moon lacks a protective atmosphere, so it is strewn with craters that are created when objects such as asteroids regularly slam into the surface.

This was the first time a piece of space debris accidentally hit the lunar surface as experts know. But craters are a result of spacecraft deliberately crashing into the moon.

For example, four large lunar craters attributed to the Apollo 13, 14, 15 and 17 missions are all much larger than each of the overlapping craters created during the March 4 crash. However, the maximum width is on the new double crater is similar to the Apollo craters.

Unclear origin

Bill Gray, an independent researcher focusing on orbital dynamics and the developer of astronomical software, was first to discover the path of the rocket booster.

Gray had originally identified it as the SpaceX Falcon rocket stage that launched the US Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, in 2015, but later said that he had made a mistake, and that it was probably from a Chinese lunar mission in 2014 – an assessment NASA agreed with.
However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that the booster was from its Chang’e-5 lunar mission, saying that the rocket in question burned up upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
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No agencies systematically track space debris so far away from Earth, and the confusion over the origins of the rocket stage has underscored the need for official agencies to monitor space debris more closely, rather than relying on the limited resources of individuals and academics.

However, experts say that the biggest challenge is the remnants of space in low orbit around the Earth, an area where it can collide with functioning satellites, create more rubbish and threaten human lives on manned spacecraft.

There are at least 26,000 space debris in orbit that is the size of a softball or larger and can destroy a satellite in a collision; over 500,000 objects the size of a marble – large enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million pieces the size of a grain of salt, tiny debris that can still puncture a spacesuit, according to a NASA report issued last year.