Why is a space rocket on a collision course with the Moon?

Debris previously thought to be from a SpaceX rocket but now believed to be from a previous Chinese launch will explode upon impact next month and make a crater on the Moon

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An out-of-control space rocket is on a collision course with the Moon next month and is set to create a large crater on the lunar surface.

The rocket will smash into the Moon on March 4, as had previously been announced by experts.

But it has now been identified as a Chinese booster from a rocket launched in 2014, not a SpaceX rocket, as previously believed.

Students from the University of Arizona have been tracking the debris for weeks and were able to confirm its identity due to its paint job.

“I am astounded 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,” said Adam Batle, a graduate student studying planetary science.

“The differences we see are primarily due to type of paint used by SpaceX and the Chinese.”

But why will a rocket crash into the Moon and where did it come from?

Moon launch in 2014

The debris is believed to be the remains of a booster from China's Long March 3C rocket that launched the Chang’e 5-T1 lunar robotic spacecraft.

“We took a spectrum [which can reveal the material make-up of an object] and compared it with Chinese and SpaceX rockets of similar types, and it matches the Chinese rocket,” said Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor at the university.

“This is the best match and we have the best possible evidence at this point.”

Data analyst Bill Gray was the first to discover the uncontrolled debris heading towards the Moon.

He said that with all the data that is available, it is certain that an impact will take place on March 4.

“It's unclear when the Chang'e 5-T1 booster would have gone by the Moon, but four days after launch would be a reasonable ballpark estimate,” he said on his blog, where he has been posting regular updates.

Is the coming impact dangerous?

The impact will not cause any kind of safety issue for Earth, but it has added to the concerns of astronomers who say that space debris needs better tracking.

Rockets usually save enough fuel to be brought back to Earth's atmosphere and burn up, but some are discarded in space and fall into unknown orbits.

Grace Halferty, an undergraduate student at the university, said there needs to be better space traffic management.

“While this isn't the most detrimental impact, the idea of so many objects in space with unknown orbits and identities is worrying.

“There are only a handful of objects in lunar orbit, but I hope this event sheds light on the growing problem of space junk.

“This science community is concerned about the growing pollution.”

Tanner Campell, another student at the university, said that the event would help them study more about craters on the lunar surface.

“We don't often get a chance to track something we know is going to hit the Moon ahead of time,” he said.

“There is particular interest in seeing how impacts produce craters. It's also interesting from an orbital prediction perspective, because it's travelling between the Earth and moon unpropelled.

“It's just an inert rocket body tossed around by its own energy and by solar radiation pressure, so we can evaluate our models and see how good our predictions are.”

Updated: February 17, 2022, 8:50 AM