China doubts the origin of rocket debris about to hit the moon

China claims that a piece of distant space debris about to hit the moon did not come from one of the country’s lunar missions, as astronomers tracking the object believe. However, China may have confused which mission the debris originally came from, as most of the evidence points to it being an ancient Chinese missile.

This doomed space object has received quite a bit of attention in recent weeks, since an astronomer and space tracker named Bill Gray first predicted it would hit the moon on March 4 after years of orbiting Earth. At first, Gray thought the object was a leftover piece from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched a satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2015. But after some follow-up analysis, Gray claimed he was mistaken and that the debris was actually an old rocket stage left over from China’s 2014 Chang’e 5-T1 mission, which tested the technology needed to return samples from the moon. to bring.

Gray’s conclusion that the object is a Chinese rocket has been supported by analysis from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and by a team from the University of Arizona. But China is now officially reflecting on the matter and may be disputing US astronomers’ claims. “According to China’s monitoring, the upper stage of the Chang’e-5 mission rocket safely passed through Earth’s atmosphere and burned completely,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said in a press release. conference on Monday. The statement was first reported by Space news

In particular, Wang said that the missile from the Chang’e-5 mission burned into Earth’s atmosphere, according to a transcript of the conference. But Gray and others claim the missile comes from the Chang’e 5-T1 mission, which is a separate flight altogether. Chang’e 5-T1 was a predecessor of Chang’e-5, which was launched only in 2020. That mission’s booster actually fell back to Earth and burned up in the atmosphere, according to a new blog post from Gray.

As for the booster of Chang’e 5-T1, Space news notes that the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron — which is responsible for tracking space debris — says on its tracking website that it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in October 2015. But Gray also has an explanation for that discrepancy. Apparently, the 18SPCS only gave one update on the missile’s trajectory shortly after the mission’s launch and never again after that. That means the “conclusion” that the rocket burned is likely a prediction based on that one update, Gray says.

“If that was all they had to work with, then the re-entry date is a prediction a year ahead and doesn’t make much sense. (Like trying to predict the weather a year in advance),” Gray writes in his blog post. The edge contacted the US Space Command, which maintains the huge catalog of tracked space debris around Earth, but received no response in time for publication. We’ll update if we hear anything.

Gray says he briefly wondered if there might have been another huge object that went up with the Chang’e 5-T1 mission, and that second object is now causing all the fuss. However, such a mysterious second object has not been catalogued. He also says that after asking around, it seems unlikely that another object could explain what they are seeing. “It would be really surprising if there were two objects the size of the one we’re tracking and the top stairs [of the Chinese rocket]”, says Gray The edge† “So anyone saying this isn’t the top phase has a pretty big mountain of evidence to overcome right now.”

So all signs seem to point to the missile coming from China. For Gray, all this confusion shows that better tracking of clutter in deep space is much needed. Official tracking entities like the 18SPCS are really more focused on tracking debris in lower Earth orbits because they pose significant risk to satellites and other assets we rely on every day. When it comes to these kinds of objects launched into deep space and spent years in very elongated orbits around the Earth, no official body really keeps an eye on it.

Gray argues that entities launching such objects must disclose the position data of their missiles and that someone — or some (probably international) agency — must keep all that information. And most importantly, some care should be taken in the way these objects are disposed of. “Many more spacecraft are now in high orbit, and some of them will take crews to the moon,” Gray writes. “Such clutter will no longer be just an annoyance to a small group of astronomers. A few fairly simple steps would help a lot.”

As for this object, wherever it comes from, one thing is still certain: it will turn to dust on March 4 when it collides with the moon.

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