A hunk of space junk nobody wants to claim slammed into the Moon on Friday morning

The junkification of space has officially begun.
Brad Bergan
The surface of the moon.NASA / Unsplash

For years, a piece of a China space rocket floated aimlessly through space after presumably taking part in an October 2014 launch. On Friday, the debris met its end when it slammed into the Moon at 7:30 a.m. Eastern, just like tracking officials predicted.

The collision was too close to the edge of the Moon — and in its shadow — for anyone on Earth to see, but this lunar impact will probably leave a mark that could stretch 65 feet across.

It's safe to assume that the junkification of space has officially begun.

Space debris that hit the Moon was likely China's Chang'e 5-T1

The discarded rocket debris has garnered much attention in the last month. It was never supposed to hit the Moon, but it found a way via the laws of physics. At first, many were unsure about who was responsible. One post from Bill Gray, a software program creator and asteroid tracker who uses Project Pluto, suggests that it was debris from one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches, declaring it was doomed to "certain impact."

Gray was half right.

Instead of a leftover rocket stage from SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch of a weather satellite in 2015, an assortment of other space trackers later confirmed that the rocket was probably an abandoned heap of rocket trash from China's Chang'e 5-T1 mission, which in 2014 propelled experimental tech that was later used to bring lunar samples back to China, from the Moon.

Given the flight profile of the Chang'e 5-T1, and the movement of the mysterious hunk of space debris, astronomers reached a consensus on the identity of the space junk: It's likely the Long March 3C rocket that entered an unusually elongated orbit around Earth. 

Here's the video of that launch back on October 23, 2014:

China denies ownership

The Chinese government has denied the debris is a piece of the rocket, contending that its Long March 3C has already returned to the Earth, falling into the atmosphere. "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," announced a China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, during a February 2021 press conference.

But Wang could have confused his nation's missions. Chang'e-5 was a different mission entirely — that mission launched in 2020. Astronomers who tracked the moon-bound object were firm in their conviction that this was, in fact, from China's Chang'e 5-T1 mission.

The two are not the same.

Precedence for space debris on the Moon and beyond

While abandoned space debris slamming into the Moon isn't a great look for the space programs of Earth, it's perhaps more unfortunate to confront the fact that this has happened before. Bits of rockets from the  NASA Apollo missions in the '60s and early '70s were eventually left to collide with the Moon. More recently, NASA crashed the LCROSS spacecraft into the Moon in 2009. That last instance was for science, with the aim of uncovering what materials might lie beneath the surface.

The impact made on Friday could be the first time a spacecraft that no one explicitly said would crash into the Moon did so. Of course, not everyone who wants to dump garbage somewhere is overwhelmingly keen on announcing it to the world.

Gray and other scientists are building a new discursive platform on this impact event to argue for the collective push to develop better plans for sustainably disposing of space junk in deep space. Part of it has to do with tracking capabilities. (No one wants to get clobbered by debris on their way to the Moon or Mars).

Fresh moon crater pics incoming — Scientists are anxious to identify the Moon's new crater, which will be hard to see amid the unconscionably abundant fresh craters on the lunar surface. But rest assured, someday soon we'll have a glimpse at the handiwork of someone's spent rocket stage. And it will probably look cool.

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