In March 2022, a piece of a used Chinese rocket unexpectedly crashed into the lunar surface, leaving an unusual double crater in its wake. Now, new research by scientists at the University of Arizona provides compelling evidence that the rocket debris had a secret payload attached, adding further intrigue to the strange impact.
The new paper aims to conclusively identify the rocket body as belonging to a Chinese Long March 3C launch vehicle used for a lunar mission in 2014. Additionally, its anomalous tumbling trajectory and disproportionate mass distribution suggest it was still carrying undisclosed material from its original flight, making the lunar collision even more perplexing.
Upon analysis, the dimensions of the double crater located in the Moon’s Hertzsprung basin closely match simulated impact models for a Long March rocket and an attached heavier object. This mysterious secondary payload created significant asymmetry in the rocket’s rotation.
By establishing the rocket booster’s identity and flight history, the lack of any known module matching the mass properties points to an unknown structure or instrument carried onboard to skew its tumbling dynamics, according to the researchers.
While the evidence shows something was still attached to the rocket when it crashed into the Moon, the actual nature and purpose of this unlisted piece may never become clear.
Given it survived eight years in space, the researchers speculate it could have been some durable radiation-hardened equipment or computing gear capable of long-term operation. But China has not acknowledged anything missing from public mission logs.
Whatever the case, the unexplained lunar impact produced lasting features still visible from Earth. The crater curiously memorializes an oddly asymmetrical piece of space junk and its covert companion plunged forever into the Moon‘s abyss.
The peculiar tale began in 2015 when astronomers first spotted an errant object on a trajectory towards the Moon. Initially believing it was an old SpaceX rocket booster, scientists eventually identified deteriorating orbital parameters matching China’s Chang’e 5-T1 spacecraft.
Though China’s government disputed this finding, claiming the rocket burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, U.S. Space Command confirmed the booster remained intact with its path ultimately intersecting the lunar surface.
Over years, the lifeless rocket slowly approached the Moon for an inevitable crash date with our planet’s nearest celestial neighbor. But it had one last secret to unveil upon its decisive arrival.
The Arizona team analyzed the double crater’s features to verify consistency with a hollow cylindrical rocket body plus a large attached mass impacting at extreme velocities. Using computer modeling, they verified this would produce the puzzling twin-crater effect witnessed.
By calculating the Chinese booster’s approximate mass versus the unexpected asymmetry caused by an extra passenger, the researchers demonstrated how an unexplained weighty object fundamentally altered its orbital dynamics prior to striking the Moon.
Experts highlighted that the strange lunar crash illustrates issues around governmental transparency, as China still refuses to take ownership over the wayward rocket or explain the clandestine piece accompanying it.
Moreover, the event exemplifies the serious long-term dangers posed by space debris even after primary missions conclude. Without stricter post-operational practices to deorbit expired satellites and rockets, wayward hardware threatens vital assets around Earth and beyond.
Hopefully this unusual lunar incident spurs expanded multinational efforts addressing the cascading problem of space junk complexified further by potential military applications in orbit. Otherwise, future collisions carrying ambiguous payloads could spark terrestrial distrust and instability amidst governments’ ambitions expanding deeper into space.