Science

Chinese rocket body falls apart in orbit after successful satellite launch

China sent the Yunhai 3 environmental monitoring satellite into orbit on Friday (November 11) during the second launch of its new national Long March 6A rocket.

The Long March 6A lifted off from the hilly Taiyuan Space Center in northern China at 5:52 pm EST on November 11 (22:52 GMT; 6:52 Beijing time on November 12), just hours before China launched its last load. flight to the Tiangong space station.

The satellite entered its intended orbit, the Shanghai Academy of Space Flight (SAST), the state-owned launch vehicle manufacturer, said. (will open in a new tab) within an hour of launch.

Related: Latest news about China’s space program

Little is known about the Yunhai 3 satellite. SAST and Chinese state media have said that it is designed to carry out atmospheric and marine environment research, space environment research, disaster prevention and mitigation work, and scientific experiments.

Yunhai 3 currently orbits about 520 miles (840 kilometers) above Earth in a sun-synchronous orbit, or SSO, which means it passes over the poles and certain points on Earth at the same time every day.

However, one part of the mission that did not go according to plan was the operation of the upper stage of the rocket after it launched the Yunhai-3 into orbit. The spent rocket stage fell apart and now consists of more than 50 pieces at different altitudes, increasing the overall space debris threat in low Earth orbit.

The 18th Space Defense Squadron of the US Space Forces announced on Twitter that they had launched their Long March 6A upper stage. (will open in a new tab) Sunday (November 13). The squadron stated that it tracked over 50 associated units at an estimated altitude of 310 to 435 miles (500 to 700 km) and “including [this information] into the usual assessment of the connection to ensure the safety of space flights.

A number of observations from the ground were also made illustrating the destruction and fragmentation of the rocket stage. Individual parts tumble and spin rapidly, creating flash patterns as they catch sunlight.

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The debris rotates at a height where there are very few molecules from the Earth’s atmosphere. This means that it will take many years for the fragments to be deorbited by atmospheric drag.

More than 630 (will open in a new tab) destruction, explosions, collisions or anomalous events in orbit resulting in fragmentation of a spacecraft or space debris.

This is not the first orbital fragmentation associated with the Yunhai satellite. The Yunhai 1 (02) satellite broke into many pieces after an alleged collision with a Russian rocket debris in March 2021.

Meanwhile, Yunhai 3 is in its own orbit.

The launch of the second Long March-6A rocket from the Taiyuan Cosmodrome on November 11, 2022, carrying the Yunhai-3 satellite into orbit.

The launch of the second Long March-6A rocket from the Taiyuan Cosmodrome on November 11, 2022, carrying the Yunhai-3 satellite into orbit. (Image credit: Our space)

The Long March 6A bears little resemblance to the much smaller Long March 6 rocket, although the latter is also produced by SAST and is launched from Taiyuan. 6A is 164 feet (50 meters) high and has a first stage diameter of 11 feet (3.35 m). (The 6A, in turn, is smaller than China’s mighty Long March 5B rocket, whose 25-ton main stages fall uncontrollably from orbit to Earth after launch.)

The Long March 6A is China’s first rocket to combine a liquid-fueled main stage with four solid-fueled side boosters, and it made its maiden flight in March this year. Notably, the now-retired NASA Space Shuttle used its own solid-liquid configuration.

The Yunhai 3 launch was China’s 50th launch in 2022, and Tianzhou’s 51st launch 5 hours later. The country is on track to break its national record of 55 launches in a calendar year, which was set in 2021.

Upcoming missions include the fourth mission of commercial company Galactic Energy, the first flight of the Jielong 3 (Smart Dragon 3) rocket, developed by a subsidiary of China’s main space contractor, to be launched from a mobile offshore platform, and Shenzhou. 15 manned flights to the Tiangong space station.

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