Mystery deepens as China denies ownership of rocket due to crash into Moon

Conflicting reports heighten confusion over who is responsible for space debris

China has denied ownership of a rocket set to crash into the lunar surface on March 4.

It was first identified as a SpaceX rocket, but then astronomers said it was remnants from China’s Long March 3C rocket that launched the Chang’e 5-T1 lunar robotic spacecraft in 2014.

However, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed the rocket booster had burnt up upon re-entry a year after launch.

“The Chinese side has noted experts’ analysis and media reports on the matter recently. 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,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

The response did little to clear up confusion as Mr Wang appeared to accidentally mention the Chang’e-5 mission — China’s Moon mission that launched in 2020 — in his comments, instead of the 2014 launch he was asked about by the Associated Press.

Space tracking data from the US Space Force also shows the Chinese booster from 2014 had re-entered the atmosphere in October 2015, according to SpaceNews.

However, Nasa issued an analysis stating it was Chinese debris from the Chang’e 5-T1 launch.

The rocket debris will crash on the far side of the Moon. Nasa 

“China’s aerospace endeavours 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 co-operation with all sides,” Mr Wang said.

The debris is set to crash into the far side of the Moon, creating a large crater upon impact.

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

He first identified it as a booster of a SpaceX rocket, but then issued a correction on his blog saying it was a Chinese rocket.

Students from the University of Arizona also claim the rocket is Chinese.

“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.”

While it is still not clear who is responsible for the space debris, the events have added to the concerns of astronomers who say 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.

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Updated: February 22, 2022, 2:15 PM
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