Next week, the upper stage of a rocket will slam into the Moon. That much is certain. The rest of the details in this saga are less clear-cut. First believed to be a SpaceX rocket fragment, the space junk was later identified as part of a Chinese rocket, from the pathfinder mission Chang’e-5 T1, something which China denies.
“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. 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,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a press conference.
Now, Wang Wenbin is correct in saying that the upper stage of the Chang’e-5 rocket burned into the Pacific in 2020. That is the mission that landed on the Moon, collected samples (the first in over 40 years), and came back to Earth. However, it is the upper stage of the Chang’e-5 T-1 mission – a different mission launched in 2014 to test the technology then used in the Chang’e-5 mission – which may be on a collision course with the moon, according to astronomer Bill Gray, who has been tracking the Moon-bound rocket.
While it would be very difficult to confirm without any doubt that this is indeed the Chinese rocket, there is independent evidence beyond Gray’s orbital calculations. A team from the University of Arizona has performed observations that agree that the object heading for the Moon looks like a Chinese rocket.
"We took a spectrum (which can reveal the material makeup of an object) and compared it with Chinese and SpaceX rockets of similar types, and it matches the Chinese rocket," associate professor Vishnu Reddy, who co-leads the Space Domain Awareness lab, said in a statement. "This is the best match, and we have the best possible evidence at this point."
High orbiting space junk is not tracked by any space agencies, which is why there is so much uncertainty when it comes to who a rocket might belong to. For example, it is unknown where the SpaceX rocket that was first believed to be this one has gone (Bill Gray has a guess for it too).
The rocket stage will hit on March 4 at 12:25 UTC somewhere in or near the Hertzsprung crater on the Moon's far side. The Crater is located on the Lunar equator and is known for having a mass concentration at its center.