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China’s Rocket Debris Falls over Southeast Asian Seas, But China has Accomplished Greater Things

By: Andrew Lu

The Chinese rocket, Long March 5B, was one of the most powerful rockets the country built. This year made a successful run to their new Tiangong space station, adding another new part to it. Recently, uncontrolled debris from the booster of the rocket fell and crashed over the Southeast Asian Sea.

Earlier, observatories from all over the world tracked the debris, and even by the day before the crash landing, they were still unsure of where it’d landed – only to conclude that it’d landed somewhere near the equator. The debris re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 12:45 PM Eastern Time (7-30-22) and made its way down to the ground.

An update posted by the Chinese Manned Space Agency on Weibo said that most of the debris burned up over the Sulu Sea – a body of water between the Philippines and the island of Borneo. But there was a slight possibility that it could have hit a vast Philippines metropolitan city or a major city on Borneo.

The administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson, issued a reprimand on Saturday, saying that China “did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth.” He added that all countries should “share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.” It could benefit public safety if these programs would share this information.

Usually, for long and huge rocket booster stages like the one on Long March 5B, it would immediately jettison and crash back into a control area. But the Long March 5B’s 23-ton core rocket boosters accompanied the capsule to the space station.

Then, after delivering the parts to the space station, the booster core fell – and became uncontrollable. The debris kept rubbing against Earth’s top atmosphere, creating friction that forced it out of orbit.

People on the island of Borneo reported sightings of the debris landing – thinking that it’d be a meteor shower.

This was the third flight of the rocket, and it successfully challenged NASA and SpaceX.

But earlier launches have been successful. The flight carried an empty reusable astronaut capsule, and the booster stage fell onto the Ivory Coast – causing only some property damage.

The second launch – even more successful than the first – carried the Tianhe, the main module of the Tiangong. Then, the recent launch carried the Wentian – the laboratory module – to Tiangong.

The rocket contains several pieces. First, the four side boosters dropped harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean. Then the core booster carried the Wentian to space. The space station is now considered the second space station in orbit where humans can do research.

China plans for the space station to run for 10 years – encouraging other nations to participate. This station is smaller than the aging ISS (International Space Station), which is expected to operate until 2030. But recently, Russia has decided to leave the ISS soon, which may determine the length of time it can still service.

Rockets fire their engines after they deliver their payloads and aim towards an unpopulated area to crash land. Typically, most of the debris gets burned up pretty quickly, resulting in 20%-40% of the rocket surviving. For the Long March 5B rocket, around 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of the debris made its way down to Earth.

In the future, one more launch (expected to be in October) is needed for the Mengtian module and will complete the space station. Another one will deliver a separate orbiting space telescope.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggests that the Chinese have used the same trick NASA had done four decades ago with the Saturn 1B rocket. The rocket had a gigantic booster, just like the Long March 5B that didn’t have steering boosters for a controlled landing.

“They actually did something clever in terms of venting the fuel,” Dr. McDowell said. “They didn’t actually have a rocket engine ignition, but they vented the fuel in such a way as to lower the perigee into the atmosphere.”

Maybe this is the start of another space race – between the US and China. But then, China would have to catch up quickly if they don’t want to lose as the Soviets did six decades ago.

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