HELSINKI — A spent rocket upper stage from China’s 2014 Chang’e-5 T1 mission thought set to impact the moon did not reenter the atmosphere as previously stated, according to U.S. Space Command.
The rocket stage has been identified by astronomers and academics tracking deep space objects as most likely to be the object set to impact the far side of the moon March 4.
Official Chinese statements and space tracking data from U.S. Space Command had suggested that the upper stage of a Long March 3C rocket that launched Chang’e-5 T1 had already reentered the atmosphere and could not be the rocket debris calculated to soon hit the moon.
However, a U.S. Space Command spokesperson told SpaceNews in an email that it can confirm that the stage did not deorbit and that the 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS) is currently determining the appropriate update to its space catalog. It could not confirm the origin of the object set to impact the moon, however.
“While U.S. Space Command can confirm the CHANG’E 5-T1 rocket body never deorbited, we cannot confirm the country of origin of the rocket body that may impact the moon.
“With over 43,000 objects we track daily, which has grown by 1,500+ due to the intentional destruction of COSMOS 1408, and the dissemination of approximately 800,000 conjunction warnings daily, we focus on objects closer to the Earth,” the spokesperson noted.
“When the rocket body passed geosynchronous orbit, the 18 SPCS deprioritized tracking and are now in the process of reevaluating the information at space-track.org.”
It was first thought the rocket debris belonged to a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), but was later determined to best fit activity related to China’s Chang’e-5 T1 launch to test lunar sample-return technologies.
Independent spectral analysis by students at the University of Arizona also adds to the evidence that the object’s identity most likely belongs to China’s 2014 Chang’e-5 T1 mission.
Asked about the situation during a regular press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Feb. 21 that, “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.”
It was unclear if the reference to Chang’e-5, a 2020 sample-return mission, was an error, a lack of specificity or a confusion of two, similarly-named missions. The upper stage of the Long March 5 which launched the 2020 Chang’e-5 mission reentered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean a week after launch.
Bill Gray, the astronomer who first noted that a rocket stage was due to impact the moon back in January, calculates that the rocket stage will impact the moon at 7:25 a.m. Eastern March 4 in the vicinity of the crater Hertzsprung on the far side of the moon.
The issue of deep space debris is expected to become more important in coming years as 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.
“The upcoming lunar impact illustrates well the need for a comprehensive regulatory regime in space, not only for the economically crucial orbits around Earth but also applying to the Moon,” Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Safety Programme, said in a recent ESA release.