A much-debated piece of space junk, suspected to be part of a Chinese rocket that helped launch a 2014 lunar mission, hit the far side of the moon, scientists say.
The bus-sized third stage of a Long March 3C rocket was expected to crash into the moon at about 7:25 am ET Friday, traveling at a speed of about 5,700 mph, space observers say.
Originally, astronomers thought the space junk was a SpaceX rocket launched seven years ago.
Astronomer Bill Gray of Project Pluto last month corrected his initial projection about the impending impact crash. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies supported his updated projection saying “the object expected to impact the far side of the Moon March 4 is likely the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 booster launched in 2014.”
Space junk illustrated:Chinese booster – not SpaceX rocket – hit the far side of the moon today. Probably
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But the debate about the space junk continues. Chinese officials said that stage of the rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. However, US space observers wonder if the officials are mixing up two different lunar missions with similar designations – the 2014 test flight and 2020′s lunar sample return mission.
Gray, a mathematician and physicist, said he’s confident now that it’s China’s rocket.
“I’ve become a little bit more cautious of such matters,” he said. “But I really just don’t see any way it could be anything else.”
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics supports Gray’s revised assessment but notes: “The effect will be the same. It’ll leave yet another small crater on the moon.”
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Whatever the space junk was, it will be weeks, perhaps months, before we see any imagery of that crater caused by its impact. Scientists expect the object to carve out a hole 33 feet to 66 feet across and send moon dust flying hundreds of miles across the moon’s barren, pockmarked surface.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will have taken images before the impact and, when it is in position, take post-impact images. “We will find the crater, eventually,” Mark Robinson, principal investigator for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, told USA TODAY. “Depending on its location, it could take as long as 28 days.”
Contributing: Stephen J. Beard and George Petras, USA TODAY, and The Associated Press
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.