China suggests it doesn't own the rocket debris poised to collide with the Moon

There's some confusion over the debris' origin.

Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images

Don't expect China to readily accept blame for the rocket debris expected to collide with the Moon on March 4th. SpaceNews and The Verge report Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied that the debris came from the 2014 Chang'e-5 T1 Moon mission. The upper stage of that rocket burned up "completely" in Earth's atmosphere, Wang said. He maintained that China's aerospace efforts were always in line with international laws, and that the country was determined to protect the "long-term sustainability" of outer space.

It's not clear China has the right rocket in mind, however. Astronomer Bill Gray, who pinned the expected collision on the Chang'e-5 T1 mission (after initially blaming SpaceX), believes Wang may have confused that with the 2020 Chang'e 5 mission. A US Space Force squadron claimed the T1 upper stage burned up in October 2015, but Gray noted that the squadron offered only one trajectory update for that rocket. The burn-up may have been assumed, not confirmed. NASA's JPL also believes the T1 booster is involved.

Whoever's responsible, the predicted crash will represent an unwanted milestone in spaceflight — a Moon crash from a spacecraft that wasn't meant to be there. The dispute over the debris' origins also reflects the difficulty of tracking space debris. While there are more advanced sensors for spotting debris in Earth orbit, deep space monitoring simply hasn't been a priority. The impending collision might change that focus, particularly with Moon missions like NASA's Artemis program on the horizon.