Discovery of a double crater where a rocket crashed into the Moon

Once back on the Moon, astronauts might encounter a new geographic feature if they venture to the other side: an unusually shaped crater caused by a rocket crash. In March, a worn-out spacecraft crashed into the moon. While astronomers knew a collision had occurred, the site and shape of the impact remained a mystery.

But on June 24, astronomers combing through images from a lunar satellite spotted not only the crash site, but also a double crater – two overlapping gaps – left on the moon’s surface. This discovery could help space agencies understand what happens when something man-made hits the moon.

Two superimposed divots form the double crater. An eastern crater 19.5 meters in diameter overlies a western crater 17.5 meters wide. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a robotic spacecraft orbiting the moon that has been photographing its surface since 2009, took a photo of the crater that formed on March 4. However, it did not observe the exact moment of the collision, forcing astronomers to scrutinize before and after photos of the huge impact.

The unexpected double crater on the surface of the moon. NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Rocket parts have already punched holes in the lunar surface. Apollo-era Saturn 5 rockets, which carried early lunar explorers, created craters. However, neither left the newly found twin form behind.

“It’s cool, because it’s an unexpected result,” said Mark Robinson, a professor of geological sciences at Arizona State University who reported the discovery on Friday. The New York Times. “It’s still a lot more fun than if the prediction of the crater, its depth and its diameter, had been exactly right.”

In January, amateur astronomer Bill Gray was the first to detect space debris on a collision course toward the far side of the moon. The space debris turned out to be the upper stage of an abandoned rocket, although no country has yet taken responsibility for it. Gray originally predicted that the parts came from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) in 2015. A NASA engineer later refuted this theory, as DSCOVR did not follow the same orbit as the abandoned ship.

[Related: NASA finally fully fueled up its Artemis moon rocket]

Instead, the debris may have belonged to the Long March 3C rocket, which China launched in October 2014. University of Arizona researchers confirmed the idea; the crashing object emitted wavelengths of light similar to other Chinese rockets. However, China denies that its vehicle caused the crash, arguing that the rocket stage used to launch the Chang’e-5 T1 spacecraft burned up during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Regardless of where the rocket originated, the double crater it formed suggests the craft had large masses at both ends. Usually, a spent rocket stage is heaviest at the bottom where the engines are. Used rockets should be lighter at the top if their fuel tanks are empty. But something at the top end of this rocket had enough weight to leave a breach, making it a strange but extraordinary case.

Leave a Comment