The Moon Rocket Mystery

Today’s title might sound like a Jules Verne novel, but it takes place in the present of the 21st century, not Verne’s future 21st century. 

On 24 June 2022, NASA released an odd press briefing. It noted how astronomers discovered a rocket heading toward the moon in late 2021. They calculated this entity would smash into our satellite on 4 March 2022. Impact occurred on that date.

As strange as it might seem that a rocket slammed into the moon, it’s not actually an uncommon historical happening. At least 47 rockets have impacted the moon over the years, including several Apollo missions. However, those who follow space exploration know humans have not sent many rockets toward the moon in the past few decades, so this crash did sport a bit of rarity.

More peculiar still is the fact that NASA does not know what country sent a rocket to smash into Luna!

Rocket impact craters for Apollo missions 13-17 - NASA

We can count at least 15 current nations among the space-faring: Russia, the United States, France, Italy, Australia, Japan, China, the United Kingdom, India, Israel, Ukraine, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, and New Zealand.

Every single one denied the rocket belonged to them.

Barring an extraterrestrial rocket and NASA not knowing one of its own spacecraft was barreling toward the moon, one of 14 nations is lying.

The identity of the rocket’s launch country is not the end of the mystery.

The NASA briefing reported another strange aspect of the story. Check out the craters from the Apollo missions in the image above. Their major commonality is a single crater. One might think this attribute is moot; it seems reasonable that a craft slamming into a massive body would leave a single impact crater. For most objects, a single crater might be the most common outcome. However, it’s not a given. Rockets do tend to leave just one hole because, after a long journey, the ship’s gas tank is empty. This attribute leaves one heavy portion: the engine. When just one heavy piece remains on a lengthy object, that object will create a single crater.

NASA possesses a wonderful toy that floats around the moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter began mapping our satellite in 2009. This robot managed to find the exact location of the mystery rocket’s impact. As you might guess, a single crater there was not!

The mystery rocket's double impact crater - NASA
A before and after shot - NASA

According to NASA, no other rocket body has ever produced a double crater. They postulate the rocket must have had heavy masses at both ends. The briefing stated, “Since the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the double nature of the crater may indicate its identity.”

Yet they do not speculate or add further information. Officially, the tale remains an unsolved mystery.

Looking at the list of space nations, however, a cynic might pair one of the countries with a history of falsehood: China. Even before the impact date in March, some experts believed the only candidate for the mystery rocket to be the Chang’e 5-T1 booster, a leftover from a 2014 Chinese lunar mission.

China denies involvement, claiming the booster for Chang’e 5-T1 burned up in Earth’s atmosphere shortly after its launch. Even if China prevaricates, it appears as if the U.S. 18th Space Control Squadron lost track of the mystery rocket at some point. Whoops!

In an era of increasing space junk, a redeveloping space race, and less than forthcoming nation-states, this lapse in tracking does not inspire confidence. How can we hope to avoid Armageddon and Deep Impact if we can’t even trace a giant hunk of metal that originates on our own orb? It gives a whole new meaning to “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”

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