China sends a cargo spacecraft to a fiery death in the Earth’s atmosphere

Tianzhou 3 is no more.

The 35-foot (10.6-meter) long cargo spacecraft was sent to a fiery doom in Earth’s atmosphere at 11:31 pm EDT Tuesday (July 26; 03:31 GMT and 11:31 Beijing time on July 27). This is reported by the Space Agency (CMSA).

“Most of the spacecraft’s components were removed and destroyed, with a small amount of debris falling into designated safe South Pacific waters,” CMSA officials said in a statement today. (will open in a new tab) (July 27). (Translation provided by Google.)

See also: The largest spacecraft that fell uncontrollably from space

The robotic Tianzhou-3 was launched into Earth orbit on September 20, 2021, delivering about 6 tons of cargo to Tianhe, the core module of China’s Tiangong space station, which is still under construction. The cargo ship undocked from Tianhe on July 17, opening port for the Wentian module, which arrived a week later. (A third module, called Mengtian, is expected to launch this fall at Tiangtian, which will complete the assembly of the space station.)

Wentian was launched on a Long March 5B rocket, the main stage of which went into orbit along with the module. This main stage returns to Earth, but unlike Tianzhou 3, in an uncontrolled fashion; Atmospheric drag is expected to bring it down sometime this weekend, experts say.

The rocket’s uncontrolled re-entry is not surprising; this result is built into the design of the Long March 5B, which has launched three orbital missions to date. This is different from other rockets, whose main stages are usually dropped into the ocean or over uninhabited areas of land shortly after takeoff or safe landing for future reuse (in the case of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy).

NASA officials and others in the space community have criticized China for allowing such large pieces of space debris to fall unawares back to Earth, given the (albeit slim) chance that their surviving debris could harm people or infrastructure.

“It is clear that China is not meeting responsible standards for its space debris,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. (will open in a new tab) last year, shortly before the Long March 5B main stage that launched the Tianhe module crashed on Earth.

“It is very important that China and all space nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of space activities,” he added.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrations by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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