Another Chinese launch, another uncontrolled rocket body reentry.
Manned Chinese Space Agency (CSMA) launched the third and final module from the Tiangong space station on Monday, October 31 atop a Long March 5B heavy rocket. As with previous Long March 5B launches, China did not perform a controlled deorbit of the rocket’s core stage after its payload was deployed. This means that, once again, a 23-tonne (21 metric ton) Chinese rocket body will crash to Earth above a yet-to-be-determined location in the coming days.
“For those who have followed previous versions of this: here we go again,” said Ted Muelhaupt, consultant in the office of the chief engineer of The Aerospace Corporation, during a Wednesday (Nov. 2) briefing that discussed future space. undesirable accident and what could be done in the future to prevent such incidents.
While Muelhaupt was quick to point out that “nobody has to change their life because of this”, he also pointed out that “88% of the world’s population is at risk, and therefore 7 billion people are at risk” by Chinese space debris. falling on them.
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The Aerospace Corporation’s panel of experts made sure to note that they weren’t trying to hype the event or cause panic. “The answer is that you have a much better chance of winning the lottery tonight than getting hit by this object,” Muelhaupt said. “The risk for an individual is six in 10 trillion. That’s a very small number.”
This is far from the first of these incidents. In July, between 5.5 tonnes and 9.9 tonnes (5–9 metric tons) of another Long March 5B crashed in the Indian Ocean after surviving the fall into Earth’s atmosphere. Another Long March 5B crashed into the Indian Ocean in April 2021 after the Chinese space agency failed to perform a controlled deorbit. And in 2020, after the first launch of the rocket, parts of the central stage of the vehicle would have touched the ground in Ivory Coast.
(Most rockets are designed so that their main stages plunge into the ocean or over unoccupied land shortly after liftoff, or return to Earth for safe landings, in the case of vehicles SpaceX. But the Long March 5B core stage reaches orbit, and China lets it stay in place until the drag knocks it out of control.)
As more of these uncontrolled Chinese re-entries occur, more and more voices are calling for the establishment of laws or international standards to prevent such incidents from occurring. Marlon Sorge, executive director of the Center for Orbital Debris and Reentry Studies at the Aerospace Corporation (CORDS (opens in a new tab)), said at today’s briefing that international laws are unclear when it comes to these types of re-entries. “And the reality is that there are no real laws, treaties, international that govern what you’re allowed to do in terms of re-entry,” Sorge said. “So there really isn’t a direct legal way to control what’s happening internationally.”
For their part, neither China’s national space agencies nor any other official government bodies have issued a response to The Aerospace Corporation’s regular tracking and communications regarding the downfall of the Long March 5B rocket bodies. Muelhaupt said he was unaware of “any direct commentary on aerospace from the Chinese”, although he had “seen general comments about the West unnecessarily hyping things up”. Sorge said the Chinese government “made a few comments in the press at one point, but mostly didn’t.”
“I mean, really, Aerospace’s goal here is just to report what’s going on – make sure the people you know are informed; they understand that they have a realistic view of the situation,” Sorge added. “There’s not really anything to discuss there.”