Science

A giant chunk of Russian space junk crashes into Earth

The space junk population has dropped a bit.

The Persei upper stage of a Russian Angara A5 heavy-lift rocket crashed into Earth in an uncontrolled manner today (January 5), striking the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean at 4:08 pm EST (2108 GMT).

“Persei re-entry confirmed: 2108 UTC over 121W 14S in the south [Pacific]”Astronomer and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said via Twitter today.

That latitude / longitude location corresponds to an empty patch of sea east of French Polynesia.

The crash ended nine days in the air for Persei, who was stranded with a dummy payload during a test flight that launched on December 27. Persei apparently dug his own grave, and was unable to restart as planned for a second engine combustion that would have sent him from low Earth orbit to a much higher geostationary position.

Related: The Largest Spaceship To Crash Uncontrolled From Space.

Persei was a fairly large piece of space junk. At liftoff, it weighed about 21.5 tons (19.5 metric tons) here on Earth, but most of it was propellant. That fuel was likely vented during the stay of the in-orbit stage, so the chunk that fell to Earth likely tipped the balance by around 3.5 tons (3.2 metric tons), according to Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com .

Most of the rocket’s body almost certainly burned up in Earth’s atmosphere today, according to McDowell, who analyzes publicly available tracking data. So don’t expect to find giant, smoking craters (if any pieces fell on dry land).

“Any damage caused by the surviving debris will be minor (it could dent some poor person’s roof, but it will not wipe out humanity),” McDowell wrote via Twitter on Tuesday (January 4).

In that case, I was responding to a follower who asked if Persei’s accident would resemble the scenario featured in the 2021 movie “Don’t Look Up,” which tells the story of two astronomers trying to warn people about a major Kite. towards Earth. (The movie is a satire, and the incoming comet is a metaphor for climate change and humanity’s tepid response to its disastrous impacts.)

In May 2021, in a controversial example of a large space junk fall, the 23-ton center stage of a Chinese Long March 5B thruster fell after 10 days in Earth orbit.

Long March 5B had successfully raised the central module of China’s new space station on April 28. The rocket’s core stage made it into orbit that day, turning into a piece of space junk rather than plunging into the ocean shortly after liftoff as first. -stage boosters do it on most pitches. Hence the controversy.

The December 27 launch was the third test flight of the Angara A5, the development of which has been plagued by a number of delays. The first two launches of the heavy lift, which took place in December 2014 and December 2020, succeeded in delivering dummy payloads to the desired orbit.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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