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An out-of-control piece of rocket space junk is crashing into the moon: Here's what to know

The rocket stage will strike the far side of the moon, shown here in an artist's impression.
(Image credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio by Ernie Wright)

A rocket stage will slam into the moon on Friday (March 4), amid a dispute about which country launched it and discussions on the complexity of tracing human-made objects in deep space.

What's known for sure is that the rocket stage will impact the far side of the moon, out of range of ground telescopes and likely also away from the immediate view of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The unintentional crash will occur at 7:25 a.m. EST (1225 GMT) on Friday, experts say.

LRO will seek out the crater after the event, a missions spokesperson told Space.com last month; Scientific American suggests the impact will occur somewhat near (opens in new tab) the 354-mile-wide (570 kilometers) Hertzsprung Crater.

The rocket body's road to the moon has been a tricky story to trace, however. Sources have variously pointed to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, a Chinese rocket or perhaps some other vehicle.

The discussions have framed the difficulty of looking for small objects near the moon's orbit, which has larger implications for tracking missions and debris as NASA's Artemis program, and the United States Space Force, both target cislunar space for missions later in the 2020s and beyond.

Lunar mystery: Who launched the rocket that will slam into the moon?
More: The greatest moon crashes of all time

See the rocket stage?

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A few months ago, astronomer Bill Gray (who runs the Pluto Project program that tracks faraway space objects) originally identified the rogue object as the upper stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite in February 2015. The finding generated international news and attention.

A deeper analysis, however, revealed that a Falcon 9 is not the likely culprit. The orbit does not match that of the DSCOVR Falcon 9, Gray said in a correction to his initial work. It more closely resembles the orbit of the upper stage of the rocket that launched China's Chang'e 5-T1 mission in 2014, he noted. Helpers with Gray's reanalysis who supported this new theory include Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer who commonly tracks space objects.

Chang'e 5-T1 was a technology demonstrator for the Chang'e 5 mission, which brought a sample of the moon back to Earth in December 2020. 

Several more independent observations have suggested that the moon-bound booster is from Chang'e 5-T1. But China has denied that the mission is responsible. 

Video: Rocket stage to slam into moon, seen by Virtual Telescope Project

A Long March 3C rocket launched Chang'e 5-T1, China's first round-trip uncrewed moon mission, from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in October 2014. (Image credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation)

"According to China's monitoring, the upper stage of the rocket related to the ... mission entered into Earth's atmosphere and completely burned up," foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said (opens in new tab) Feb. 21 on a Chinese government website, as reported by SpaceNews (opens in new tab).

China has come under fire in recent years for spaceflight practices that some experts say have been irresponsible. In 2021, for example, the 23-ton core stage of a Chinese Long March 5B booster crashed uncontrolled into the sea shortly after launch. (Generally, such large pieces of hardware are brought down in a controlled fashion for safety reasons.) Chinese officials, likely understanding that context, have stressed in the moon-crash discussion that the nation is very careful about how it disposes of all rocket stages shortly after launch.

China's assertion about the Chang'e 5-T1 booster was initially backed up by tracking data from the U.S. Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS), which suggested that the Chinese stage reentered the atmosphere in 2015, according to SpaceNews (opens in new tab). Gray, however, has said that the Space Force's data was likely an extrapolation of a presumed reentry rather than confirmation of an actual one. That seems to have been the case, for the 18 SPCS recently confirmed to SpaceNews (opens in new tab) that the Chang'e 5-T1 stage did not deorbit after all.

The dispute remains unresolved. The booster moon crash will pose no threat to any infrastructure, given that it's occurring on the little-explored lunar far side. Scientific American (opens in new tab), however, notes that any future bases on the moon's surface will need to keep a careful eye out for space debris that could be heading their way.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.