A large piece of Chinese space debris has crashed into Earth.
The 25-ton (22.5 metric ton) core stage of a Long March 5B rocket is retracted earth’s atmosphere above the Indian Ocean this afternoon (July 30), ending its brief but controversial orbital stay.
“#USSPACECOM can confirm that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 a.m. MDT [12:45 p.m. EDT; 1645 GMT] on 07/30,” U.S. Space Command announced. via Twitter today (opens in a new tab). “We refer you to the #PRC for further details on the technical aspects of re-entry such as potential debris scatter + impact location.”
meteor spotted in kuching! #jalanbako 7/31/2022 pic.twitter.com/ff8b2zI2swJuly 30, 2022
The Long March 5B took off on July 24, carrying a new module to China’s under-construction Tiangong space station. Unlike the main stages of most rockets, which are directed to safe disposal shortly after launch or soft landing for future reuse, the Long March 5B reached orbit with its payload. And he remained standing – like a big piece of space debris — until atmospheric drag knocks it down unpredictably and out of control.
The heads of mission did nothing; this end-of-life scenario is baked into the design of the Long March 5B, much to the dismay of exploration advocates and much of the wider spaceflight community. This elimination strategy is reckless, critics say, given that the big rocket doesn’t completely burn out on reentry.
Suspected rocket debris in Sibu Sarawak area pic.twitter.com/xIROJGM0PDJuly 30, 2022
Indeed, 5.5 to 9.9 tons (5 to 9 metric tons) of Long March 5B likely survived to the ground today, according to experts at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies. estimated (opens in a new tab).
And it’s possible that falling rocket pieces caused injury or infrastructure damage today, given where the Long March 5B re-entered. An observer appeared to capture the rocket rupture from Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, for example, posting video of the dramatic event on Twitter (opens in a new tab).
“The Kuching video implies it was high in the atmosphere at the time – any debris would land hundreds of miles further along the runway near Sibu, Bintulu or even Brunei,” the report said. astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said via Twitter today (opens in a new tab). It is “unlikely but not impossible” that one or more pieces will hit a population center, he added in another tweet (opens in a new tab).
Chinese space officials, for their part, said (opens in a new tab) the rocket body re-entered at 119.0 degrees east longitude and 9.1 degrees north latitude. This place is over the ocean, just off the island of Palawan, which is part of the Philippines.
We’ll have to wait a while to see exactly where the rocket debris fell. But the fact that the crash happened is not at all reflective of China and its spaceflight program, experts say.
“What really should have happened was that there should have been fuel left on board for it to be a controlled re-entry,” Darren McKnight, technical manager at California-based tracking company LeoLabs, said Thursday (July 28). , during a Long March 5B back-to-school discussion that The Aerospace Corporation streamed live on Twitter. “That would be the responsible thing to do.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed similar sentiments, calling on China in a statement released today (opens in a new tab) shortly after the start of the school year.
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not share specific information about the trajectory when its Long March 5B rocket landed on Earth,” Nelson said.
“All space nations should follow established best practices and do their part to share this type of information in advance to enable reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy vehicles, such as the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property,” he added. “This is critical to the responsible use of space and to keeping people safe here on Earth.”
This was the third uncontrolled fall of a Long March 5B center stage to date. About 10 days after the rocket’s first launch, in May 2020, pieces of the rocket body returned to Earth over West Africa, some of them apparently hit the ground in Ivory Coast (opens in a new tab).
The rocket’s second flight, in April 2021, lifted Tianhe, the core module of the Tiangong Space Station. This Long March 5B body returned over the Arabian Peninsula about a week after takeoff, dump debris in the Indian Ocean.
The rocket will fly again soon: A Long March 5B is expected to launch the third and final Tiangong module this fall. There will likely be more Chinese space junk drama after this, but maybe not for too long.
“I see China slowly adopting other countries’ standards in space,” McDowell said during Thursday’s discussion with Aerospace Corporation.
“And I think it’s important to remember that they were sort of a latecomer to space activities,” McDowell added. “And so they’re catching up, and I think they’re catching up to standards as well.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. EDT July 30 to include statement from Chinese officials on where the rocket body reentered.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).