A Long March 5B booster has now uncontrollably reentered the atmosphere four times in the last two years.
This week, after delivering the third and final module to China’s nascent space station, the core stage of yet another Chinese Long March 5B rocket is scheduled to crash back to Earth.
Researchers at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies predict that the roughly 25-ton (23 metric tonnes) rocket stage, which launched Oct. 31 to deliver the Mengtian laboratory cabin module to the Tiangong space station, will reenter Earth’s atmosphere on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 11:51 p.m. EDT, give or take 14 hours.
Although the precise location of the rocket’s landing is unknown, The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research organisation supported by the United States government and based in California, claims that the possible debris field includes the United States, Central and South America, Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia. China has uncontrollably disposed of its rockets four times in the past two years. Previous crash landings caused metallic debris to fall on towns in the Ivory Coast, debris to float to the surface of the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, and rocket fragments to come perilously close to Borneo settlements.
Usually the largest and most potent component of a rocket, the booster is also the least likely to totally burn up during reentry. There are solutions to this problem. Engineers work to position rockets so that their booster portions land safely in the ocean rather than escaping into orbit. Some rockets are built to fire a few more bursts from their engines if they do reach orbit in order to guide them back into a controlled reentry.
The enormous rocket will be forced to circle the planet before landing in an unknown place because the Long March 5B booster engines cannot be restarted once they have stopped.
China has argued that unchecked reentry is standard procedure and has called worries about possible harm “shameless propaganda.” In 2021, Hua Chunying, then-spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alleged that Western reportage on China’s falling rockets was biassed and utilised “textbook-style double standards.” For instance, Hua believes Western media outlets reported positively and with the use of “romantic phrases” on the debris from a falling SpaceX rocket that struck a farm in Washington state in March 2021. A second batch of SpaceX debris crashed on an Australian sheep pasture in August 2022, a year later.
According to The Aerospace Corporation, the likelihood that someone may be hurt by the falling rocket is low (varying from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 230), and the risk to lone persons is even lower (between 1 in 10 trillion and 1 in 6 trillion). Nevertheless, because the rocket’s debris path passes over around 88% of the world’s population, the likelihood of harm is much higher than the generally acknowledged 1 in 10,000 casualty risk threshold for uncontrolled reentries.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement following the 2021 Long March 5B crash landing that “spacefaring nations must reduce the dangers to persons and property on Earth of reentries of space objects and promote transparency surrounding those activities.” “It is obvious that China’s space junk does not adhere to responsible standards.”
It is anticipated that the T-shaped Tiangong space station will stay in low Earth orbit for at least ten years. Tiangong’s mass is around one-quarter that of the International Space Station. The station will be used by its three-person rotating teams to conduct research and test cutting-edge equipment like ultracold atomic clocks.
China has been stepping up its space footprint in recent years to catch up with the U.S. and Russia. In 2019, a rover was successfully landed on the far side of the moon, and in 2020, rock samples were collected from the lunar surface. Additionally, China has stated that by 2029, a lunar research station will be built on the moon’s south pole.