First identified by astronomer Bill Gray, the rocket was initially believed to be an upper stage from a completed SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch. But Gray soon issued a correction that instead identified the rogue rocket as a leftover from the Chinese Chang'e 5-T1 mission that launched back in 2014.
Either way, though, you might be wondering what such a collision means for us residents of Earth. And on March 5th — we got an answer. Here's the lowdown on what happened when the rocket hit the moon.
The Moon Gets a Brand New Crater — Probably
On the morning of March 5th, 2022, the upper stage of a Chinese Long March 3C rocket — a four-ton piece of debris that's roughly the size of a bus — impacted the lunar surface. At least, that's the time that astronomers estimated that the impact would take place. The actual event occurred on the far side of the moon, which means that astronomers couldn't watch it happen in real-time.
According to the astronomers tracking the rocket, it was traveling at approximately 5,800 mph (9,300 kph) as it sped toward a location near the moon's Hertzsprung Crater. If you're not familiar with that particular bit of lunar geography, the Hertzsprung Crater is a naturally formed crater on the far side of the moon that's approximately 354 miles wide (570 kilometers). For the earthbound — that's a bit larger than the state of Iowa.
The collision marks the first time that a man-made object has unintentionally hit the moon, except for a handful of failed space probes that crash-landed there. And it's certainly a much larger object than anything that's crashed before. This time, scientists estimate that the impact will create a new crater that's roughly 10 to 20 meters in diameter.
The Search Begins
Even though the crash happened on a part of the moon that we can't observe from here on earth, astronomers haven't given up on finding the impact site. They're planning to use NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to scour the surface in search of it. The trouble is — they've only got a rough estimate of the site's location to start with.
That means the orbiter will have to take a series of photos of the lunar surface in the area where the rocket's trajectory should have taken it. The LRO boasts a camera that can take images at a 3 feet (1 meter) per-pixel resolution, meaning that it should be able to spot the crash site with little trouble. And if it can't, there are some other nations with lunar orbiters that might take a crack at finding the spot.
Finding the crash site isn't only a vanity project. Scientists are hoping that a detailed evaluation of the crater will help them to develop more accurate impact simulations to use in the future. There's also hope that the LRO's sensors might pick up the telltale signs of ice under the lunar surface. And that would be a handy bit of information to have now that NASA's moving full speed ahead with its plans to return humans to the lunar surface.
The main takeaway from all of this is that the rocket that crashed into the moon on March 5th won't mean much to most of us here on Earth. But for scientists working on future lunar missions — and particularly those working to establish a permanent human presence there — it could be a big deal. If the LRO and similar satellites can locate the impact site and study it, it might yield some useful data.
And if nothing else, it should dissuade any Bond villains out there from going forward with their plans to attack the moon — because this particular incident proves that they'd need an awfully big rocket to have any meaningful effect on the Earth and its inhabitants.