NASA has located the crash site of a mystery rocket body that collided with the far side of the Moon last March. While this isn’t the first lunar collision involving a rocket body, this is the first one that left a double crater on the Moon.
How did the double crater on the Moon come about?
According to NASA, astronomers found a rocket body heading toward a lunar collision late last year. The impact took place on March 4th, with the space agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) later spotting the resulting crater.
Images taken on May 25th were shared by the LRO on June 24th. And the photos show an unexpected overlapping double crater — an eastern crater measuring 59 feet (18 meters) across and a western crater spanning 52.5 feet (16 meters).
After a rocket body impacted the Moon last year, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to snap a surprising view of the impact site. Unexpectedly, the crater is actually two craters and may indicate that the rocket body had large masses at each end: https://t.co/WtMAFrNkUw pic.twitter.com/hcoYPxlm8z
— NASA 360 (@NASA360) June 27, 2022
This newly spotted double crater puzzles scientists because no other rocket body impacts on the Moon created double craters. NASA proposed that the mystery rocket body probably had large masses on each end, which might have formed the two craters. The agency, however, pointed out that such a scenario would be unusual since spent rockets typically tend to have a heavy motor at one end and a lighter empty fuel tank at the other.
Based on 2016 data from Arizona State University, at least 47 NASA rocket bodies created
“spacecraft impacts” on the Moon, but none of them resulted in double craters.
How long before the double crater was discovered?
The double crater was spotted three months after the lunar collision, but Bill Gray, the astronomer who first discovered the mystery rocket body and alerted NASA about its eventual impact, thought that the crater would be found sooner.
“I must confess that I’d naively thought it would be easier to find and would have been located shortly after impact,” Gray wrote on his blog Project Pluto, where he uses software to track near-Earth objects.
He, however, concluded that the three-month interval between the lunar impact of the mystery rocket body and the discovery of its crash site is way shorter compared to the efforts of finding the booster for Apollo 16, which NASA shot at the moon back in 1972 to study moonquakes. Before the Apollo 16 booster could hit the moon, NASA lost contact with it, making its impact location elusive for years.
“Finding one small crater among hordes of craters isn’t all that easy,” Gray wrote of the multi-year search for the Apollo 16 crater. “That crater was found about six years after the other Apollo booster impacts. Compared to that, having to wait about three months looks pretty good.”
Where did the mystery rocket body come from?
As of writing, no space-exploring nation has claimed responsibility for the mystery rocket body. But NASA noted that the double nature of the resulting crater may indicate its origin.
What is NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter?
Managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, the LRO is a robotic mission that set out to map the Moon’s surface and, after a year of exploration, was extended with a unique set of science objectives.
Since its June 2009 launch, the LRO has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the Moon. It has also enabled numerous groundbreaking discoveries, creating a new picture of the Moon as a dynamic and complex body. The LRO’s findings have also set up a scientific framework that helps improve the agency’s understanding of processes throughout the solar system.
Find out more about LRO’s accomplishments in the video below: