A huge rocket body launches the planet out of control and could fall back to Earth in the next few days.
The approximately 21-ton object is the main stage of the Chinese Long March 5b missile. On Wednesday, China launched the first module of a new space station the country is building. Instead of landing in a predetermined place in the ocean, as is usual for rocket launches, the main stage of Long March began to orbit the planet uncontrollably.
The rocket’s body is likely to fall back to Earth in the next few days, journalist Andrew Jones, who covers China’s space program, told SpaceNews.
“I think it’s unacceptable to return to it uncontrollably by current standards,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects in orbit around the Earth. “Since 1990, nothing over 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to enter uncontrolled.”
The rocket stage measures about 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, according to Jones. When it falls out of orbit, it can burn into the Earth’s atmosphere, but large pieces of debris can survive a fall. Most of the planet is ocean, so falling rocket bits are likely to land there. But they could still threaten populated areas.
“It is always difficult to estimate the amount of surviving mass and the number of fragments without knowing the design of the object, but the reasonable ‘rule’ is about 20-40% of the initial dry mass,” said Holger Kragg, head of the Space Safety Service. The European Space Agency told Jones.
The path of the rocket body around the Earth takes it “a little north of New York, Madrid and Beijing and all the way south to southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand,” according to Jones. It can fall back to Earth anywhere in this range.
This is not China’s first out-of-control missile
China launched the long-term March 5b before that, in May 2020, to test it by launching a prototype spacecraft into orbit. The main stage of this rocket also fell back to Earth uncontrollably, six days after launch. It has regenerated Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the 18th US Space Command Squadron, but local reports suggest that pieces of the rocket fell on Côte d’Ivoire.
Jim Bridenstein, who was a NASA administrator at the time, punished China for the incident, calling it “really dangerous.” The path of the rocket stage had taken him over Los Angeles and New York just before he succumbed to gravity.
Long March 5b is specifically designed to launch modules on space stations, according to Jones. China plans to build its new 11-launch space station by the end of 2022. It is not yet clear how the Chinese space authorities plan to launch missiles from the next 10 launches.
“The main stage of Long March 5B is seven times more massive than the second stage of Falcon 9, which attracted a lot of press attention a few weeks ago when it returned to Seattle and dumped several pressure tanks in Washington state,” McDowell told Jones. .
A pressure tank from this SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landed on a farm in Washington and left a 4-inch dent in the ground. According to local authorities, no one was injured in the incident.
An early prototype of the space station that China is building also returned to Earth uncontrollably in 2018. It fell over the uninhabited South Pacific.
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