The moon has a strange, new crater. But this one’s not natural.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began mapping the moon in 2009, spotted the impact site of a recent rocket crash on the far side of the moon, which occurred in early March. The space agency published imagery of the impact on Friday, which actually resulted in a double crater: a 19.5-yard crater overlapping with a 17.5-yard crater.
Astronomers expected a wayward rocket booster to slam into the moon, making it the first known time that space debris unintentionally impacted our natural satellite. What NASA didn’t expect, however, was a double crater.
“The double crater was unexpected and may indicate that the rocket body had large masses at each end,” NASA wrote in a description of the image. “Typically a spent rocket has mass concentrated at the motor end; the rest of the rocket stage mainly consists of an empty fuel tank. Since the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the double nature of the crater may indicate its identity.”
The independent astronomer Bill Gray, who tracks objects that travel into Earth’s solar system neighborhood, has published evidence that the derelict rocket booster is from a 2014 Chinese lunar mission (Chang’e 5-T1), though he originally thought it was a SpaceX rocket. China denies the now-crashed booster is theirs.
Whoever is responsible, the damage to the moon’s surface, while not nearly catastrophic, underscores a part of humanity’s growing space junk problem, and how this affects or pollutes other worlds. Some rockets, after blasting their satellites or spacecraft into space, are left in “chaotic” orbits, with the potential for the spent rockets to fall to Earth or potentially get flung out into deeper space.
The white square shows the location of the double crater left by the rocket impact on the moon.
Credit: NASA / Goddard / Arizona State University
Prior to this rocket impact, humanity had already left its mark on the moon. Rocket boosters from the Apollo missions (parts of NASA’s colossal Saturn V rocket) left a number of craters some 40 yards wide on the moon’s surface. There are bags of astronaut poop on the moon. And a few years ago, Israel’s crashed Beresheet spacecraft scattered debris on the lunar surface.