Students Confirm Wandering Rocket’s Chinese Origin, Track Lunar Collision Trajectory


The UArizona Space Domain Awareness team – including Grace Halferty, Vishnu Reddy, Adam Battle and Tanner Campbell – stand in front of the RAPTORS-1 telescope atop the Kuiper Space Sciences Building. The team has confirmed that the rocket booster due to hit the Moon on March 4 is from China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission and not a SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: Vishnu Reddy

The alleged SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster that is about to hit the moon on March 4 is actually a Chinese booster from a 2014 rocket launch, a team from the University of Arizona has confirmed.

UArizona students from the university’s Space Awareness Lab at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have had their eyes glued to the piece of space junk for weeks as they study its rotation. They also collected other data, which they used to confirm his Chinese origin.

“We took a spectrum (which can reveal the material composition of an object) and compared it with Chinese and SpaceX rockets of similar types, and it matches the Chinese rocket,” said Vishnu Reddy, associate professor at UArizona, which co-leads the space domain. Awareness lab with engineering professor Roberto Furfaro. “It’s the best game, and we have the best possible evidence at this stage.”

Reddy and his students provide observations to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help determine the location of the impending thruster impact on the moon, which could be imaged and verified by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

They estimate it will strike somewhere in or near the Hertzsprung crater on the far side of the moon. UArizona is the only public university to offer an academic program dedicated to space domain awareness. UArizona’s space science program was ranked #2 among US public universities and #10 in the world in US News & World Report’s 2021 Top Global Universities Rankings.

Based on its trajectory across the sky, the booster was initially believed to be a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster from a launch in 2015, with a trajectory that put it on track to hit the moon. The unintended impact of space junk on the moon is rare. But the rocket is now seen as a booster for the Chang’e 5-T1, launched in 2014 as part of the Chinese space agency’s lunar exploration program.

Using the RAPTORS system, a telescope atop the Kuiper Space Science Building on campus, UArizona students made observations on the nights of Jan. 21 and Feb. 7, the latter being the last time that the rocket would be visible before it hits the moon in March.

“I’m amazed that we can tell the difference between the two rocket body options – SpaceX versus Chinese – and confirm which one will impact the moon with the data we have. The differences we see are mainly due to the type of paint used by SpaceX and the Chinese,” said Adam Battle, a graduate student in planetary science. Battle has worked at the Space Domain Awareness Lab since 2018 and focuses on spectroscopy, which helped confirm the booster’s origins. An object’s spectrum can also reveal the effects of space weathering.

“We don’t often get the opportunity to follow in advance something that we know is going to hit the moon,” said Tanner Campbell, an aerospace and mechanical engineering graduate student who has worked with Reddy since 2017. “There’s particular interest in seeing how impacts produce craters. It’s also interesting from an orbital prediction perspective, because it travels between the Earth and the Moon unpropelled. It’s just a body inert rocket being tossed about by its own energy and by the pressure of solar radiation, so we can evaluate our models and see how good our predictions are.”

Campbell focused on the object’s photometry, meaning he determined how fast it is spinning. Rocket bodies have a distinct luminosity pattern that makes them easily identifiable.

This booster is just one of many pieces of space junk that the UArizona team and others around the world are tracking. There are about 3,500 active satellites orbiting Earth, and another 20,000 pieces of space junk or junk, according to Reddy. However, there is much less space junk around the moon.

“While not the most detrimental impact, the idea of ​​so many objects in space with unknown orbits and identities is disturbing,” said Grace Halferty, an undergraduate engineering student. mechanics and biology. Since September 2018, she has been studying SpaceX’s Starlink satellites and their effect on ground-based astronomy. “We need better space traffic management.”

“There are only a handful of objects in lunar orbit,” Reddy said, “but hopefully this event will shed some light on the growing problem of space junk. This scientific community is concerned about growing pollution.”

The Arizona team also tracked and identified many other man-made objects as they traveled through the skies.

  • In 2018, the UArizona team used a $1,500 optical sensor it built in four months to track China’s defunct Tiangong-1 space station before it fell into the sea on March 31.
  • In 2020, the team tracked a piece of an Atlas rocket that launched Surveyor 2 in 1966. Using spectroscopy, the team confirmed it was what is called “the ‘Centaur upper stage’ – the part of the rocket that provides the thrust into space to place the spacecraft on a precise path to the moon.
  • In 2021, the team tracked the 22-ton Long March 5B rocket that launched China’s Tianhe space station module into Earth orbit before the rocket fell to Earth on May 8.

Rocket ready to hit the Moon was built by China, not SpaceX, astronomers say

Provided by the University of Arizona

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