Rogue rockets in flight: Three-tonne space object crashes into the moon

7 Mar 2022

A composite image of the moon from 1994. Image: NASA

This collision marks the first time in history that space hardware has unintentionally crashed into the moon.

A rogue rocket piece has collided with the moon after a journey of at least seven years roaming through space.

It is believed the collision took place on 4 March, but NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was not in a position to get a look at the crash as it happened. However, the agency said it plans to find the crater caused by the impact, reports.

This event marks the first time in history that space hardware has unintentionally crashed on the surface of the moon, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

The three-tonne rocket part has been tracked since it was first spotted in 2015, with some confusion about its origin.

It was thought to be the remnant of a SpaceX rocket, according to astronomer Bill Gray who forecasted the object’s impact with the moon.

However, Gray believes he misidentified the object originally and now says there is “good evidence” that it was the booster for China’s Chang’e 5-T1 lunar mission. China denied this claim last month.

“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 spokesperson Wang Wenbin said. “China’s aerospace endeavours are always in keeping with international law.”

Gray said on the website Project Pluto that it was “sheer chance” that the lunar collision happened with this specific booster, as “this could have happened with various objects launched by various countries”.

The ESA said that no clear guidelines exist to regulate the disposal at spacecraft objects such as this. The head of the organisation’s Space Safety Programme, Holger Krag, said the lunar impact “illustrates well the need for a comprehensive regulatory regime in space”, for objects orbiting the Earth and for those near the moon.

“It would take international consensus to establish effective regulations, but Europe can certainly lead the way,” Krag said.

With thousands of satellites in orbit and the number rising every year, there has been growing concern around the risks of space debris collisions. In 2020, two defunct satellites racing across the sky at around 53,000kph narrowly missed smashing into each other.

Last month, the European Commission proposed a Space Traffic Management system, alongside a proposed €6bn satellite system.

“Space has become more crowded than ever, increasing the complexity and the risks related to space operations,” high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, said at the time.

Updated, 4.15pm, 7 March 2022: A previous headline on this story described the rocket piece as being four tonnes. This was amended to the correct figure of three tonnes.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic