They landed on the Chang’e 5-T1 Chinese mission. This was one of the first tests of a program designed to sample the Moon. In late 2014, China’s Long March 3C launch vehicle launched a small space probe that would orbit the Moon once and then return to Earth. Leaving part of the rocket in space, in a wide orbit around the Earth that sometimes intersects with the orbit of the Moon. According to McDowell, it corresponds to the orbit of the object that collided with the far side of the Moon.
Reddy’s research group found a new piece of the puzzle last February. He and his students observed WE0913A while passing and collected data on how light reflected off the coating on the object.
The team compared this data with data from other upper stages of the SpaceX rocket and Chinese Earth-orbiting rockets, and found that the coating on the WE0913A was closer to the parts of the Chinese rocket.
Reddy said SpaceX uses a different paint than China’s, and the paint on the body that hit the moon is very similar to the paint on the Earth-orbiting Mars launcher.
Solve the puzzle, so?
No not quite. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated that the Chang’e-5 rocket returned from space and burned up in the atmosphere. But the Chinese response appears to have been based on a misunderstanding, referring to the later Chang’e 5 mission, rather than the Chang’e 5-T1.
The US Space Command, which tracks objects in space, initially announced that the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket had fully returned from space, but later retracted it. “The US Space Command can confirm that the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket body is no longer from space, but we can’t say where the rocket body that hit the moon came from,” a reporter said. Email statement from the organization.
According to McDowell, everything points to the Chang’e 5-T1. While he was reasonably confident that the errant missile component actually came from here, he was still not one hundred percent sure.
Will we really know where the missile came from?
Only if better data about the object’s orbit is found, allowing astronomers to better determine its path through space.
Over the past eight years, WE0913A has orbited Earth in an orbit that McDowell describes as a “distant, chaotic Earth orbit.” Its trajectory varies from about 24,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface to more than twice the distance of the Moon. At that great distance, the object is subjected to some thrust and pull from the moon’s gravitational pull. In addition, radiation from the sun affects the trajectory. All of these factors make it difficult to determine exactly what journey an object has traveled through space.
The missile stage was completely destroyed at impact. And it hit at eight thousand miles per hour. The Moon, unlike the Earth, does not have an atmosphere in which things slow down.
The collision caused a crater with a diameter of about twenty to thirty meters. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to capture the impact site in the coming months, but since it’s not yet clear where exactly this was, it may take some time to do so.
Has something like this happened before?
“Probably,” McDowell said. It is estimated that around 50 objects were launched during the Space Age that would likely collide with the Moon. But since little data has been kept about their route, we don’t know how they ended up with them, he says.
What we do know is that part of it may have collided with the moon without us noticing it, that another part was deflected in orbit around the sun and that a third part is either still flying in its orbit, or burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Humans have also deliberately crashed spacecraft into the Moon multiple times, sometimes out of scientific interest, sometimes at the end of a mission to the Moon.
“This crater is now part of China’s archaeological heritage on the Moon, and we need to see it in relation to other Chinese sites,” said Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist at Flinders University who studies man-made objects in space.
We might be creating a kind of modern Anthropocene stage of influence here. A type of geological age that was created by human activities and left its mark on the surface of the Moon. I have already started.
Shouldn’t these things be closely monitored?
There are a number of organizations, such as the US military, that use radar to monitor objects orbiting the Earth, from satellites just above the atmosphere to the likes of more than 35,000 kilometers away.
But hardly anyone sees space debris emerging from orbit around the Earth. Satellites are small, and bright objects like the moon and the sun make them difficult to find if they are too far away. And when they appear in asteroid studies, astronomers are often disappointed. They hope to discover undiscovered planets.
According to many experts, that should change. About 10 launches to the Moon are currently scheduled this year, and some of those missions may accidentally leave something behind in space causing a collision.
There comes a time when such a thing is no longer a funny phenomenon that you can watch from a distance. “Then it becomes for people in orbit around the moon or on the surface of the moon to worry about it,” Gorman said.
And others argue that better regulation is needed to clean up space debris, for example by allowing rocket stages to perform end-of-life maneuvers that send them into orbit around the sun, rather than orbiting between the moon and the moon.
That rocket part that hit the moon: how lucky he was to be in the back. But what if it had flown to one of the Apollo mission sites, or the Chang’e 4 rover? ‘ asks Hanlon. “We’re thinking a little bit about the moon.”
This article was originally published in English at Nationalgeographic.com
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