Scientists have re-analyzed data and corrected that the previously reported space junk about to crash into the moon on March 4 was not a SpaceX rocket booster, but space junk left behind by a Chinese rocket launched in 2014.
According to ArsTechnica, in early February, data analyst Bill Gray developed software specifically to track space junk and found that one of the pieces would hit the moon on March 4, the first-ever event of such kind. He speculated that it was a booster from the Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX launched in 2015. The boosters could have been recovered, but that mission did not have enough fuel to return to Earth, causing the second section of the booster to go out of control and float in Earth’s orbit.
After the news was announced, SpaceX was heavily criticized for not properly disposing of the space junk. But things soon changed. On Saturday, Feb. 12, Gray corrected the information in a public statement on his website.
Gray wrote: “I thought it was either DSCOVR [of Tesla] or some bit of hardware associated with it. Further data confirmed that yes, WE0913A had gone past the moon two days after DSCOVR’s launch, and I and others came to accept the identification with the second stage as correct. The object had about the brightness we would expect and had showed up at the expected time and moving in a reasonable orbit.”
DSCOVR is short for the Deep Space Climate Observatory. SpaceX launched it on a Falcon 9 launch vehicle in 2015.
However, on Saturday morning, Gray received an email from Jon Giorgini, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Power Laboratory. Giorgini said he had found that DSCOVR’s space orbit was not close to the moon, making it unlikely that its launch vehicle’s second stage would be in the vicinity of the moon.
So Gray immediately rechecked the data and found another, more credible source: the Chinese Chang’e 5 T1 mission’s Long March 3C launch vehicle launched in 2014. The mission launched a small probe to the moon to prepare for a later trip to the moon to collect samples. So the timing of this project’s launch fit perfectly with this space junk that was about to hit the moon in early March.
Gray concluded, “In a sense, this remains ‘circumstantial’ evidence. But I would regard it as fairly convincing evidence. So I am persuaded that the object about to hit the moon on 2022 March 4 at 12:25 UTC is actually the Chang’e 5-T1 rocket stage.”