Questions after Chinese debris slams into moon

Last year, an old rocket booster slammed into the Moon after swinging wildly between the Earth and the Moon for seven years. Now analysis of its unusual impact crater reveals this debris was no ordinary piece of space junk.

Something was still attached to it.

Something that shouldn’t have been there.

China isn’t saying.

A study published in The Planetary Science Journal by mechanical engineers from the University of Arizona California (UAC) says they had been tracking this particular piece of junk for seven years before it slammed into the Moon in March 2022.

And the unusual double crater imprinted on the Lunar surface confirmed their suspicions there was something very odd going on.

The engineers now believe all the evidence points to the 2014 launch of a Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission – publicly declared to be testing two payloads for an ambitious future sample return mission.

Before and after
Before (left) and after image of the lunar terrain showing the double crater that was formed. (FROM LRO Image M1400727806L (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University).

According to China, the payloads were successfully deployed, and the mission was a success. And it insists the Long March 3C rocket that had boosted the mission into space had burnt up in the Earth’s orbit, as intended. 

But US Space Command, tasked with tracking and monitoring potential threats in space, identified it as “Object 85900”, which had been tracked swinging between the Earth and Moon ever since.

What to do with rocket debris?

Space accidents are bad enough, says Dr Jason Held of space operations control firm Saber Astronautics.

“There is a sense we get from the space industry of reputation risk; for example, if something goes wrong, nobody wants to admit ownership of it,” he told Cosmos. “Saber is aware of collisions that nobody talks about and hell-hath-no-fury like a VC-funded business when they feel like their investment dollars are at risk.”

But governments are also worried about reputation.

“Nations have responsibility for the launch licenses under their control,” Held says. “Nobody owns the Moon, so nobody will approach China with a bill. But it does point to a future where we have to start tracking the lunar sky for debris for these future moon bases that we’re planning.”

But space is also increasingly a theatre for international espionage.

And the unexpected movements of supposedly benign satellites are causing a headache for space traffic controllers the world over. Not to mention the now almost regular activities of undeclared “inspector” satellites moving disturbingly close to billion-dollar space communications and navigation assets.

And that’s just one of the more obvious military activities in space.

The UAC engineers say they had been analysing the pattern of sunlight reflected from the object as it moved through space. 

“In comparing its light curve, they found that it did not wobble the way other boosters did. Instead, something was causing it to tumble in an orderly fashion,” the team says.

“A booster is typically nothing more than an empty shell with a heavy engine affixed to one end. Its asymmetry typically leads to a lot of wobbling. The lack of such a wobble suggested that Chinese engineers had attached something else to the shell opposite the engine, evening out its weight distribution.”

Now, the double impact crater on the Moon proves the Long March 3C booster was carrying a third, undisclosed piece of cargo.

And it’s not just a cause for concern for defence, says Held.

“Eight years ago, nobody cared, which is partly what makes this story interesting,” he said. “Now that we’re starting to care, people are starting to notice the broader effect that we as a species have on our broader solar system. “Big Sky, Little Bullet” is no longer a strategy the industry can afford.”

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.