Science

Debris from a 25-ton Chinese rocket fell to Earth over the Indian Ocean

A large piece of Chinese space debris has fallen to Earth.

The 25-tonne (22.5 metric tons) main stage of the Long March 5B rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean this afternoon (July 30), ending its brief but contentious stay in orbit.

“#USSPACECOM can confirm that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 Moscow time. [12:45 p.m. EDT; 1645 GMT] July 30th,” US Space Command tweeted today. (will open in a new tab). “We refer you to #PRC for more information on the technical aspects of reentry, such as potential debris dispersion + impact site.”

See also: The largest spacecraft that fell uncontrollably from space

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Long March 5B launched on July 24, delivering a new module to China’s Tiangong space station, which is under construction. Unlike the main stages of most rockets, which are sent to safety shortly after launch or soft-landed for future reuse, the Long March 5B went into orbit with its payload. And it remained at the top – like a large, fast-moving piece of space debris – until atmospheric drag brought it down in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way.

The mission leaders screwed up nothing; this end-of-life scenario is built into the design of the Long March 5B, to the dismay of research advocates and much of the wider spaceflight community. Critics say such a disposal strategy is reckless, given that a large rocket does not burn up completely on re-entry.

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Indeed, between 5.5 and 9.9 tonnes (5 to 9 metric tons) of Long March 5Bs have likely survived to this day on earth, according to estimates from the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Entry and Debris Research. (will open in a new tab).

And it’s entirely possible that falling rocket debris caused some injury or infrastructure damage today, given the Long March 5B’s re-entry site. For example, one observer filmed a rocket crash from Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, posting video footage of the dramatic event on Twitter. (will open in a new tab).

“The video from Kuching shows that it was high in the atmosphere at the time — any debris could have fallen hundreds of kilometers further along the way, near Sibu, Bintulu or even Brunei,” astrophysicist and satellite tracking specialist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center research. Astrophysics,” reads a Twitter post today. (will open in a new tab). “Unlikely, but not impossible” that one or more of the pieces hit the town, he added in another tweet. (will open in a new tab).

We’ll have to wait a bit to see exactly where the rocket debris fell. But the fact that the crash happened reflects badly on China and its spaceflight program, experts say.

“What really had to happen is that there had to be some propellant left on board for this to be a controlled reentry,” Darren McKnight, senior technical officer at California-based tracking company LeoLabs, said Thursday (July 28). A discussion of the return of the Long March 5B, which The Aerospace Corporation broadcast on Twitter. “It would be a responsible act.”

NASA administrator Bill Nelson expressed similar sentiments when calling on China in a statement released today. (will open in a new tab) shortly after re-entry.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket hit Earth,” Nelson said.

“All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices and contribute to the exchange of such information in advance to provide reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy vehicles such as the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk. loss of life and property,” he added. “This is critical to the responsible use of space and the safety of people here on Earth.”

On the subject: The Long March family of Chinese rockets: history and photos

This was the third uncontrolled fall of the Long March 5B main stage to date. About 10 days after the rocket’s debut launch, in May 2020, pieces of the rocket’s body rained back to Earth over West Africa, some of them apparently falling to the ground in Côte d’Ivoire. (will open in a new tab).

The second rocket flight in April 2021 lifted Tianhe, the main module of the Tiangong space station. This Long March 5B body re-entered the atmosphere over the Arabian Peninsula about a week after liftoff, dropping debris over the Indian Ocean.

The rocket will fly again soon: the Long March 5B rocket is expected to launch the third and final Tiangong module this fall. There will probably be more Chinese space debris dramas after that, but maybe not for long.

“I see how China is gradually adopting the norms of other countries in space,” McDowell said during a panel on Thursday at the Aerospace Corporation.

“And I think it’s important to remember that they’re kind of late to space activities,” McDowell added. “So they’re catching up, and I think they’re catching up on the norms as well.”

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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