The 25-ton (22.5 metric tons) main stage of the Long March 5B rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the Indian Ocean this afternoon (July 30), ending its brief and controversial orbital stay.
#USSPACECOM can confirm the re-entry of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) over the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 AM CST [12:45 p.m. EDT; 1645 GMT] The US Space Command announced on 7/30. Via Twitter today (Opens in a new tab). “We refer you to #PRC for more details on technical aspects of re-entry such as potential debris propagation + impact site.”
Related: The largest spacecraft falls from space out of control
Meteorite spotted in Kuching! #Glanbaku 7/31/2022 pic.twitter.com/ff8b2zI2sw30 July 2022
The Long March 5B blasted off on July 24, carrying a new module towards the still-under-construction Tiangong Space Station in China. Unlike the base stages of most rockets, which are destined for safe disposal soon after launch or to land quietly for future reuse, Long March 5B has reached orbit with its payload. It remained high—like a large, fast-moving piece of space junk—until air drag lowered it in an unexpected and uncontrolled way.
Task managers have not spoiled anything; This end-of-life scenario was incorporated into the Long March 5B design, to the consternation of exploration advocates and much of the broader spaceflight community. Critics say this disposal strategy is reckless, given that the large rocket does not burn completely upon re-entry.
Suspected missile debris in Sibu Sarawak area pic.twitter.com/xIROJGM0PD30 July 2022
In fact, it is likely that 5.5 tons to 9.9 tons (5 to 9 metric tons) of Long March 5B has survived all the way to Earth today, according to estimates by experts at the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies. (Opens in a new tab).
And it’s possible that the falling missile pieces caused some casualties or infrastructure damage today, given where the Long March 5B returned. An observer appeared to capture the collapse of the missile from Kuching, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, for example, posting a video of the dramatic event on Twitter (Opens in a new tab).
“The video from Kuching indicates that it was high in the atmosphere at the time – any debris would land hundreds of kilometers along the path, near Cebu or Bintulu or even Brunei,” astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard Center Smithsonian astrophysics He said on Twitter today (Opens in a new tab). He added that it was “impossible, but not impossible” for one or more pieces to collide with a population center Another Tweet (Opens in a new tab).
For their part, Chinese space officials said (Opens in a new tab) The missile body entered at 119 degrees east longitude and 9.1 degrees north latitude. This site is above the open ocean, off the coast of the island of Palawan, part of the Philippines.
We’ll have to wait a while to see exactly where the rocket wreckage has fallen. But experts say that the fact that the accident happened at all does not reflect well on China and its space flight programme.
Darren McKnight, a senior technical fellow with California-based tracking company LeoLabs, said Thursday (July 28) during a discussion of the return of the Long March 5B that the space company broadcast on Twitter. “That would be the responsible thing to do.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Bill Nelson, Administrator of NASA, calling on China in a statement issued today (Opens in a new tab) Shortly after re-entry.
“The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as the Long March 5B missile fell to the ground,” Nelson said.
“All space-faring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risks, especially for heavy vehicles, such as the Long March 5B, which have significant risks and loss of life and property. “. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensuring the safety of people here on Earth.”
Related: Long March rocket family in China: history and photos
This was the third uncontrolled fall of the Long March 5B primary stage so far. About 10 days after the missile was first launched, in May 2020, parts of the missile’s body rained on the ground over West Africa, and some appeared to be Hit the ground in Ivory Coast (Opens in a new tab).
The rocket’s second flight, in April 2021, lifted the Tianhe, the core unit of the Tiangong Space Station. The Long March 5B object returned to the Arabian Peninsula about a week after takeoff, dumping debris over the Indian Ocean.
The missile will fly again soon, too: Long March 5B is expected to launch the third and final unit of the Tiangong this fall. There will likely be more unwanted Chinese space drama after that, but maybe not for much longer than that.
“I see China slowly adopting the standards of other countries in space,” McDowell said during the space company’s discussion Thursday.
“And I think it’s important to remember that they were kind of latecomers in space activities,” McDowell added. “And so they’re catching up, and I think they’re catching up to standards too.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:30 PM EST on July 30 to include a statement from Chinese officials about where the missile body has re-entered.
Mike Wall is the author of “Abroad (Opens in a new tab)Book (Great Grand Publishing House, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book on the search for extraterrestrials. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab) or on Facebook (Opens in a new tab).