You know you’re living in the space age when a rocket hits the moon, and the industry as a whole points to the sky and, like an angry teacher holding up a paper airplane, asks “Who launched this?!” Truly, that is what occurred this week as an unidentified rocket stage (!) impacted the lunar surface, forming a new and interesting crater and leaving us all wondering how it’s possible to not know what happened.
What Actually Happened?
The short version of this story is that ‘skywatchers’ led by Bill Gray had been tracking an object for months that, based on their calculations, would soon impact the moon. It was obviously a piece of rocket trash (rockets produce a ton of trash), but no one stepped up to say “yes, that’s ours, sorry about that.”
Based on their observations and discussions, these self-appointed (though by no means lacking in expertise) object trackers determined that it was likely a piece of a SpaceX launch vehicle from 2015. But SpaceX didn’t cop to it, and after a while, Gray and others, including NASA, decided it was more likely to be the 2014 Chang’e 5-T1 launch out of China. China denied this is the case, saying the launch vehicle in question burned up on reentry.
How Is It Possible We Could Not Identify Such A Large Object?
Tracking derelict objects in cislunar orbit likely isn’t a high priority for government sensors when they can spend that time observing satellites or space junk that’s closer to Earth. However, tracking and monitoring of operational satellites in cislunar orbit, indeed, is critical to strategic intelligence, as it is new high ground.
Are There Likely To Be More Of These “Mystery Objects” Making Impacts In Future?
It’s possible an accidental moon strike like this could happen again in the future, depending on the number of missions that put rocket bodies into those orbits and given enough time (years or decades). But events like this should generally stay exceedingly rare.