A dead rocket just crashed into the Moon and scientists are thrilled

A natural impact on the moon created this crater in 2013. It is about to have another one.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University

A large chunk of space junk met an explosive end Friday when it collided with the moon, and astronomers are excited to see the fallout.

An old rocket booster was once believed to be the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9, but it is now believed to have originated from the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission (although China denies it), slammed into the far side of the moon at over 8,000 km/h around 4:25 a.m. PT.

The impact took place on the far side of the moon, out of sight of any telescopes or spacecraft, but NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will be able to begin taking photos of the impact site in mid- March.

Modeling software company AGI developed this animation of how the crash may have appeared from a point above the moon.

Bill Gray, an amateur astronomer and software developer in Maine, first noticed the terminal trajectory. His software captured the impact in an orbital model, and Gray worked with observatories around the world to collect additional data and increase his confidence in the prediction.

Gray thinks he mistook the booster for a Falcon 9 years ago. He and other researchers have since confirmed it was the Chinese rocket part instead.

“I’m amazed that we can tell the difference between the two rocket body options – SpaceX versus Chinese – and confirm which one will impact the moon with the data we have,” planetary science graduate student Adam Battle at the University of Arizona said in a statement in February. “The differences we see are mainly due to the type of paint used by SpaceX and the Chinese.”

The rocket crashed into the lunar surface in a crater named Hertzsprung which is slightly larger than the state of Iowa. The location is far enough away that the impact poses no threat to the Apollo mission or other space program landing sites.

“(The) rocket impact will provide a chance experience that could reveal a great deal about how natural collisions pound and scour planetary surfaces,” wrote Paul Hayne, planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for The Conversation. “A deeper understanding of the physics of impacts will go a long way in helping researchers interpret the Moon’s arid landscape as well as the effects of impacts on Earth and other planets.”

Hayne expects the impact to obliterate the rocket instantly, creating a white flash that could be seen if a spacecraft was in place with a vantage point.

“This will be the most recent archaeological site on the moon,” writes space archaeologist Alice Gorman. “We will learn something about the geology of the location from the color differences and the distribution of the ejected material. This is an opportunity to learn more about the mysterious dark side of the moon.”

As well as adding a new feature to the dark side of the moon, it’s feared it could also introduce tiny hitchhikers to our natural satellite.

“So I’m not bothered by the creation of one more crater on the moon,” David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the Open University in the UK, wrote in The Conversation. “It already has something like half a billion craters 10 meters or more in diameter. What we should be worried about is contaminating the moon with living microbes, or molecules that could in the future be confused with evidence of past life on the moon.”

The European Space Agency issued a statement last month expressing concern that not enough is being done to track space junk, as NASA and others hope to establish a permanent presence on the moon.

“The upcoming lunar impact illustrates the need for a comprehensive regulatory regime in space, not only for economically crucial orbits around the Earth, but also for the Moon,” said Holger Krag, program manager for ESA space security.

It’s not the first time a spacecraft has crashed into the moon, though Gray thinks it could be the first time it’s happened unintentionally. As recently as 2009, NASA launched its Lunar Crater Observation and Detection Satellite (Lcross) into the surface in search of water (it found it).

“Essentially,” Gray says, “it’s a ‘free’ Lcross.”

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