Chinese rocket mistaken for a SpaceX upper stage on a collision course with the Moon

Rocket debris that is expected to crash into Earth’s Moon next month appears to have been incorrectly identified as part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 after a minor media blitz that saw a range of outlets criticize the company for the nonissue.

Instead, the debris is likely a remnant from a Moon-bound launch of China’s Long March 3C rocket. It was originally identified as an old SpaceX Falcon 9 upper stage that launched in 2015, carrying the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite (DSCOVR) into orbit around the L1 Lagrange point.

Bill Gray is the astronomer and independent researcher who originally identified the space debris in 2015 with custom software used to track Near Earth Objects. The object initially called WE0913A had gone past the moon just two days after DSCOVR’s launch, stated Gray.

“I and others came to accept the identification with the [Falcon 9] second stage as correct. The object had about the brightness we would expect, and had showed up at the expected time and was moving in a reasonable orbit,” he stated in a blog post. 

Gray says that after this information was publicized, Jon Giorgini at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reached out to ask him a few questions on his research. Giorgini inquired about Gray’s claim that DSCOVR passed close by the moon just two days after its launch, arguing that the spacecraft’s trajectory should not have gone particularly close to the moon.

“It would be a little strange if the second stage went right past the moon, while DSCOVR was in another part of the sky. There’s always some separation, but this was suspiciously large.”, explained Gray on his most recent website update. 

After this discovery, Gray dug back into his previous data and came to a new conclusion: The object is the third stage of the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in October 2014 on a Long March 3C rocket. The launch trajectory and timing are very similar to that of the DSCOVR mission, explaining why the two were mistaken.

Chang’e 5-T1 tested a sample return capsule after entering orbit around the Moon. (CNSA)

According to NASA, “Analysis led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies indicates the object expected to impact the far side of the Moon on March 4th is likely the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 booster launched in 2014.”

The debris is expected to hit the moon around 7:26 am EST on March 4th. The impact will take place on the far side of the moon, so visible damage will not be seen from Earth. The crater created from impact is expected to be 10 to 20 meters across (32.8 – 65.6 feet) and both the ejecta and fresh crater could prove to be useful data for scientists studying the geology of Earth’s lone satellite.

Chinese rocket mistaken for a SpaceX upper stage on a collision course with the Moon
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