A piece of human-made space debris collided with the moon’s far side, leaving scientists initially puzzled. However, a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Arizona, California Institute of Technology, Project Pluto, and the Planetary Science Institute has shed new light on the mysterious lunar impact, suggesting that it was most likely a Chinese booster rocket from the Chang’e 5-T1 lunar mission, potentially carrying an undisclosed payload.
The incident occurred on March 4, 2022, when a mysterious object designated as WE0913A crashed into the lunar surface, forming an oddly shaped double-crater upon impact. Initially, there was speculation that the thing might have been a part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Still, subsequent evidence led scientists to consider it a booster rocket associated with China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission, even though China denied involvement in the lunar collision.
The research team conducted a thorough investigation to unravel the mystery, mapping the object’s trajectory using ground-based telescope observations. Their findings strongly suggest that WE0913A is indeed a Chinese Long March rocket body from the Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in 2014.
Furthermore, the researchers presented compelling evidence indicating that the abandoned rocket stage likely carried an “undisclosed, additional payload.” Two critical pieces of evidence support this claim.
Firstly, the object did not exhibit the expected wobbling motion as it descended to the lunar surface but instead rotated in a remarkably stable rolling tumble. This unusual behavior led the scientists to surmise that the rocket stage must have been balanced with a substantial counterweight to its two engines, weighing approximately 544 kilograms (1,200 pounds).
Tanner Campbell, the first study author and a doctoral student at the University of Arizona Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering explained, “Something that’s been in space as long as this is subjected to forces from the Earth’s and the moon’s gravity and the light from the sun.
So you would expect it to wobble a little bit, particularly when you consider that the rocket body is a big empty shell with a heavy engine on one side. But this was just tumbling end-over-end, in a very stable way.”
Campbell continued, “We know the booster had an instrument deck mounted to its top end, but those weigh only about 27 kilograms (60 pounds). We performed a torque balance analysis, which showed that this amount of weight would have moved the rocket’s center of gravity by a few inches – it wasn’t nearly enough to account for its stable rotation. That’s what leads us to think that there must have been something more mounted to the front.”
Mysterious Lunar Craters and Undisclosed Space Payload
Secondly, the researchers were intrigued by the formation of two overlapping craters upon impact. The eastern crater had a diameter of approximately 18 meters (59 feet), while the western crater had a diameter of roughly 16 meters (52 feet). These equally sized craters strongly suggest that there were two roughly equal masses on the rocket, contributing to this unusual lunar impact pattern.
As for the nature of the undisclosed payload, the research team remains uncertain. Campbell stated, “Obviously, we have no idea what it might have been – perhaps some extra support structure, or additional instrumentation, or something else. We probably won’t ever know.”
This investigation underscores the complexity of tracking space debris and the lingering mysteries surrounding objects that venture into the far reaches of our celestial neighborhood.
While the exact nature of the undisclosed payload may remain a mystery, the research represents a significant step toward understanding the intriguing collision that occurred on the lunar surface in March 2022.
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