In March last year, a rocket crashed into the far side of the Moon – and no one on Earth knew whose it was.
Now however a study has concluded it belonged to China, a claim that the country has denied.
Astronomers had been tracking the mystery rocket for weeks before it slammed into the lunar surface, leaving a bizarre double crater almost 30 metres wide. First spotted in March 2015, it had been making lonely flybys of the Earth and the Moon for years.
Early speculation about the origins of the catchily-named WE0913A suggested it could have been the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket which had launched a satellite into orbit in February 15.
However, after further investigation, researchers determined the more likely candidate had been launched the year before. In October 2014 China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission took flight around the Moon, and astronomers were confident that it was the Long March 3C’s third stage.
Now, a team from the University of Arizona has confirmed the theory in a paper published in the Planetary Science Journal.
‘In late 2021, it was discovered that an object (WE0913A) would impact the Moon in 2022 March after several close flybys of the Earth and the Moon over the coming months,’ the team wrote.
‘The true identity of this object was up for debate, with two possibilities: [either] the Falcon 9 R/B from the DSCOVR mission, [or] the Long March 3C R/B from the Chang’e 5-T1 mission.’
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The team, led by PhD student Tanner Campbell at the university, analysed the trajectory and light emissions using ground-based telescopes to rule out the Falcon 9, and confirmed it was the remains of China’s craft now spread on the surface of the Moon.
However, in 2022 China denied the impact was a result of the Chang’e mission. Speaking to the press in February, when the collision was imminent but hadn’t yet happened, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: ‘The Chinese side has noted experts’ analysis and media reports on the matterrecently.
‘According to China’s monitoring, the upper stage of the Chang’e-5 mission rocket has fallen through the Earth’s atmosphere in a safe manner and burnt up completely.
‘China’s aerospace endeavors are always in keeping with international law. We are committed to earnestly safeguarding the long-term sustainability of outer space activities and are ready to have extensive exchanges and cooperation with all sides.’
But US Space Command later said the object never re-entered.
And the mystery doesn’t end there.
The collision left a rare double crater, which doesn’t fit with the published specifications of the rocket. Most impact craters are round if the object comes straight down, or oblong if it strikes at an angle.
‘This is the first time we see a double crater,’ said Mr Campbell. ‘We know that in the case of Chang’e 5 T1, its impact was almost straight down, and to get those two craters of about the same size, you need two roughly equal masses that are apart from each other.’
The team said the weird impact crater suggests the rocket was actually a dumbbell shape, with a counterweight opposite the rocket’s engines – but they don’t know what.
‘Obviously, we have no idea what it might have been — perhaps some extra support structure, or additional instrumentation or something else,’ Campbell said. ‘We probably won’t ever know.’