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NASA Takes a Close Look at the Crater Left by a Rocket That Smashed Into the Moon

A spent Chinese booster is thought to have gone out with a big bang.

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A rocket body impacted the moon on March 4 near Hertzsprung crater, creating a double crater roughly 28 meters wide at its longest dimension. 
NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

There's a new geographical feature on the moon thanks to a wayward spent rocket body that slammed into the surface of our lone natural satellite in March. 

The impact happened on the far side of the moon out of view of any telescopes on Earth or in space at the time. But NASA tasked its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with imaging the crash site, and now those photos have finally arrived.

"Surprisingly the crater is actually two craters, an eastern crater (18-meter diameter, about 19.5 yards) superimposed on a western crater (16-meter diameter, about 17.5 yards)," NASA said in a statement on Friday.

The impact was predicted ahead of time by veteran amateur astronomer Bill Gray, though he initially mistakenly identified the space junk as a SpaceX rocket. Later he corrected himself, laying out evidence that it was actually a Chinese booster from the 2014 Chang'e 5-T1 lunar mission. Among the evidence he cites is confirmation from a team of researchers at the University of Arizona. 

However, the Chinese government has said Gray and the others are mistaken. Gray contends China is mixing up its missions. 

"The object is quite conclusively identified as the Chang'e 5-T1 booster," Gray wrote on his blog after the LRO images were released. 

NASA's statement on Friday declined to speculate on the origin of the now-obliterated rocket.

"Since the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the double nature of the crater may indicate its identity," it continues. 

The space agency says the double crater is odd, noting that none of the impact craters from old Apollo-era rockets left such a mark. 

 "The double crater was unexpected and may indicate that the rocket body had large masses at each end."

This would be pretty weird, as most rockets consist of an engine on the bottom and a fuel tank above it that would likely have been empty in this case. 

A NASA spokesperson told me via email Monday that "this object is not from a NASA mission" and referred me to the aforementioned University of Arizona research, which "has most likely identified the origin of this object."