Runaway rocket booster falls into Pacific Ocean, China gets lucky again

A 23-ton Chinese rocket-class debris fell back to Earth in the Pacific Ocean early Friday morning, according to U.S. Space Command. in a pair of tweetss.

This is China’s latest round of celestial roulette involving deliberately uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere. The rocket stage was not designed to include a system to guide it to a specific location on Earth far from humans.

This has led to tense sky-watching around the world. Like three times in 2020, 2021 and earlier this year, China on Monday launched a Long March 5B rocket, one of the most powerful rockets in operation today, to transport the third and final module of its core Tiangong space station in It is second only to NASA’s space program in terms of technical complexity.

Each time, China has successfully gambled that the rocket’s components won’t cause harm to people on the ground. But while there were no immediate reports of damage, Friday’s re-entry did cause disruptions, including the closure of Spanish airspace, which delayed hundreds of flights in the morning. A rocket of the same design is expected to be used at least once again in 2023.

Other space agencies and experts have been critical of the four rocket launches. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement criticizing China for not taking more precautions, as he did with similar launches in April 2021 and this July.

“It is vital that all spacefaring nations be accountable and transparent in their space activities,” Mr. “And follow established best practices, especially for uncontrolled re-entry of large rocket body debris — debris that could very well cause significant damage or loss of life,” Nelson said.

The Long March 5B booster isn’t the only man-made object to fall from space, or even the largest. Spacecraft debris from other countries, including the U.S., has also fallen back to Earth recently — including a small piece of a SpaceX vehicle that was spotted at a sheep farm in Australia in August.

But experts stress that such incidents are not the same as China’s use of the Long March 5B rocket.

Ted Muelhaupt, a consultant for the aerospace company, a largely U.S.-funded nonprofit that conducts research and analysis, said in a news conference Wednesday. “We haven’t done that in 50 years.”

However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Friday denied any suggestion that China’s handling of the Long March 5B rocket represented anything unusual. “What I want to stress is that China has always carried out activities in the peaceful use of outer space in accordance with international law and international practice – the re-entry of the last stage of a rocket is an international practice,” he said.

gentlemen. Zhao added that the Long March 5B was designed to pose less danger when re-entry. The rocket is “designed with special technology; most components will burn and be destroyed during reentry, with a very low probability of causing damage to aviation activity and the ground,” he said.

Same day, sir. The Spanish civil aviation authorities closed and later reopened the 120-mile-wide airspace along the booster’s predicted trajectory, Zhao said. The 40-minute airspace closure delayed 300 flights by an average of 30 minutes, authorities said.

China Manned Space Administration A statement was issued in the final hours before the core booster crashed, providing the altitudes of the perigee and apogee of the core decay orbit, as well as the orbit’s inclination.

U.S. Space Command first announced the re-entry of the rocket stage into the south-central follow-up postthe command said there was a second re-entry to the northeast.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks man-made objects in low-Earth orbit, said this suggests the rocket stage has split into two as it enters the upper atmosphere.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office reported that the booster re-entered at 6:08 a.m. ET. A place in the Pacific Ocean in southern Mexico and western Nicaragua.

“Most parts were destroyed during re-entry,” the Chinese statement said.

The risk of falling debris depends on where you live.

Due to the direction of the track, if you live in Chicago or Further north – almost all of Europe and all of Russia – the chance of being hit is always zero. The last few orbits also completely miss Asia and South America, so anyone on those two continents shouldn’t have to worry.

For people elsewhere, the chance of getting hit is slim, though not entirely zero.

“Your odds of winning the lottery are much higher” than being hit by part of a Chinese rocket, the doctor said. Moorehaupt said. “The risk to individuals is six parts per 10 trillion. That’s a very small number.” (That is, if 10 trillion Chinese Long March 5B rocket boosters fell from the sky, six of them will hit you.)

On Wednesday, he put the probability that the planet’s nearly 8 billion people would be safe at 99.5 percent.

But the 0.5 percent chance of someone being injured or killed “is high enough that the world has to watch, prepare and take precautions, and it comes at a cost, it’s unnecessary,” Dr. Moorehaupt said.

Currently, China relies on the Long March 5B to send its heaviest payload into space. The rocket consists of a large central booster and four smaller side boosters. The side booster went down shortly after launch, crashing harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean. However, by design, the core booster stage goes all the way into orbit before deploying the cargo.

For this mission, the rocket carried the science laboratory module “Mengtian” of the Chinese space station “Tiangong”.

Meng Tian docked at an orbital outpost in China on Tuesday. Tiangong is designed to last at least 10 years, and it is not as big as the International Space Station—it is closer in size to the Russian Mir space station that orbited from 1986 to 2001. But it will create a more permanent base in space than the International Space Station. China’s earlier space station and plans to conduct more than 1,000 scientific experiments in the coming years.

The Chinese rocket engineers who designed the Long March 5B did not include any way to guide the spent core booster into the open parts of the ocean.

Instead, the booster descends gradually as it rubs against wisps of the upper atmosphere. The speed at which it falls depends on the density of the air. This makes a difference because Earth’s atmosphere expands outward when the sun is active, spewing more charged particles, and contracts when the sun is quieter.

The re-entry of Chinese rockets has caused danger in the past. Two of the first three launches of the Long March 5B ended with chunks of metal landing near populated areas. While no one was injured, the close range illustrates the danger.

During the first launch of the rocket in 2020, the booster re-entered uncontrollably over West Africa and some debris landed on a village in Ivory Coast. After the third launch in July, the uncontrolled re-entry took place over Southeast Asia and debris landed in Malaysia.

“Once again, chunks of metal fell near where people were,” said Dr. Moorehaupt said.

He said there was no indication that China had made any major modifications to the rocket design that would be required for controlled re-entry.

China plans to launch at least one more Long March 5B next year to put a space telescope, Xuntian, into orbit that will rival NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Debris from U.S. rockets and spacecraft is likely to resurface on land as well, as did SpaceX vehicle parts found in Australia.

But the agency said there is little need to worry about NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, a massive lunar rocket. The SLS, the largest rocket since the Saturn V used on the Apollo mission, is scheduled for its maiden flight later this month. Its central core stage travels almost all the way to orbit, but NASA officials said Thursday that its orbit is designed to re-enter a specific no-man’s land shortly after launch.

“It’s in an area of ​​the ocean that doesn’t affect anyone,” said James Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems.

Keith Bradsher Monica Prochuk Jose Antonio Bautista Garcia and Mark Walsh Contribution reports, and Li You contributed research.

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