China claims rocket stage destined for lunar impact is not from its 2014 moon mission

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HELSINKI — Rocket debris set to impact the moon in March does not originate from the 2014 Chang’e-5 T1 mission, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims.

“According to China’s monitoring, the upper stage of the rocket related to the Chang’e-5 mission entered into Earth’s atmosphere and completely burned up,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Feb. 21.

Space tracking data from the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron suggests that 2014-065B—the international designator for the rocket stage in question—reentered the atmosphere in October 2015, a year after launch, apparently backing China’s claim.

The claim adds more mystery to an event that has captured widespread attention since it was first reported that an object would impact the moon.

Astronomer Bill Gray reported Jan. 21 that an object designated WE0913A was on a trajectory that would collide with the moon March 4. Gray initially associated the debris with the February 2015 Falcon 9 launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

Gray revised the identification of WE0913A Feb. 12 however, suggesting a better fit to be the upper stage of a Long March 3C rocket stage that launched China’s Chang’e-5 T1 in 2014, an object cataloged with the international designator 2014-065B. “In a sense, this remains ‘circumstantial’ evidence,” Gray wrote, adding a caveat.

The Washington Post later reported a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies which said the object  is likely the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 booster launched in 2014. Independent spectral analysis by students at the University of Arizona also claimed to have confirmed the object’s identity as most likely belonging to China’s mission.

The new development, if confirmed, highlights the challenges of tracking objects in deep space. Gray notes in his reports on the object that tracking deep space junk hasn’t been “all that major of a concern,” explaining that U.S. Space Force tracking is focused on lower orbits.

Radar, which is mostly used, can track objects as small as around 10 centimeters in lower orbits, but telescopes are required for tracking even large objects when further away from Earth.

The event also underlines the importance of sustainability in space operations going forward. Both the United States and a number of partners and China and Russia are planning respective Artemis and International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) programs to establish a long term presence on the moon.

Chang’e-5 T1 was a trial mission for a more ambitious lunar sample-return mission. It successfully tested a high-velocity spacecraft “skip reentry” after returning from the moon, verifying a reentry capsule could safely deliver lunar rocks to Earth.

The Long March 3C rocket upper stage for the mission also carried the Manfred Memorial Moon Mission for Luxembourg.

The full Chang’e-5 mission launched in November 2020, collecting 1.7 kilograms of fresh lunar samples from the moon and delivering them to Earth in December 2020. 

The upper stage from that mission, launched by a Long March 5, reentered over the Pacific Ocean a week after launch. 

An element of possible confusion remains over which mission Wang referred to on Monday in response to the question about the impending lunar impact from the Associated Press. Both Chinese and English transcripts and Chinese language video of the press conference refer to the “Chang’e-5 mission,” rather than the Chang’e-5 T1 mission specifically. The question had specified the 2014 mission.

“China’s aerospace endeavors 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 cooperation with all sides,” Wang concluded.

The service module for the 2020 Chang’e-5 mission is currently testing out a previously untried, esoteric orbit around the moon following an extended mission to deep space.

 

Article updated at 4:01 p.m. Feb. 21 to include note on which mission was cited during the Monday press conference.