The 25-ton (22.5 metric tons) core stage of a Chinese-built Long March 5B rocket reentered our atmosphere over the Indian Ocean on July 30. Videos of the rocket uncontrollably tumbling towards Earth show the dangers such reentries pose to infrastructure and life on Earth.
As predicted in the previous reporting, the Chinese rocket core stage has uncontrollably crashed into Earth. It is reported that fragments fell into the ocean and also near populated areas in Malaysia and Borneo.
Its brief but controversial orbital stay ended this afternoon (July 30) with the 25-tonne core stage returning to Earth’s atmosphere. “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 PM EDT; 1645 GMT) on 7/30,” the US Space Command announced on its Twitter account.
#USSPACECOM can confirm the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approx 10:45 am MDT on 7/30. We refer you to the #PRC for further details on the reentry’s technical aspects such as potential debris dispersal+ impact location.
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) July 30, 2022
“We refer you to #PRC for more details on technical aspects of re-entry, such as possible debris dispersal + impact location.”
Bringing a new module to the under-construction Tiangong space station, the Long March 5B launched on July 24.
Unlike most rocket core stages, which land softly for future reuse after launch or steer to safe disposal after launch, the Chinese rocket reached orbit along with its payload.
As if it were a large, fast-moving piece of space junk, it stayed up until atmospheric drag brought it down uncontrollably and unexpectedly.
There was no mistake on the part of the mission directors; this end-of-life scenario was built into the Long March 5B design, much to the dismay of those who advocated space exploration. Critics say that the big rocket does not completely burn up upon re-entry.
Experts at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies estimate that 5.5 to 9.9 tons (5 to 9 metric tons) of the Long March 5B survived reentry.
— Nazri sulaiman (@nazriacai) July 30, 2022
Considering where space debris re-entered, falling rocket fragments may have injured or damaged some infrastructure. Video of the rocket breakup has been posted by an observer in Kuching, in Sarawak, Malaysia.
One or more fragments may hit an urban area because the Kuching video suggests it was high in the air at the time. Any debris which fell along the runway could land hundreds of kilometers away, near Sibu, Bintulu, or even Brunei.
For its part, Chinese space officials indicate the rocket reentered at 9.1 degrees north latitude and 119.0 degrees east longitude. Located off the coast of Palawan, a Philippine island, that location is over the open sea. It will take a while to determine exactly where the rocket debris landed. In spite of this, experts believe the crash is a bad sign for China’s space program.
Experts have asserted that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) failed to provide specific information regarding the rocket’s trajectory when it fell to Earth.
The Long March 5B core stage crash was the third to have occurred so far. The rocket’s body rained pieces over West Africa a few days after its debut launch in May 2020. Some of those pieces appeared to have hit the ground in Côte d’Ivoire. Second, the rocket lifted Tianhe, the station’s core module, in April 2021.
The rocket re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula, raining debris into the Indian Ocean a week after it took off.
A Long March 5B rocket is expected to launch the third and final Tiangong module this fall. There will likely be more Chinese space junk drama after that, but perhaps not for a long time.
After all, if China really does want to continue its space race, it will have to do more. China needs to adopt outer countries’ standards in space exploration, so it is expected that in the near future, they will solve their Long March 5B crashing issue by changing how they launch structures into space.
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