It is Helsinki, Finland. While people across the world waited for the fiery reentry of a major Chinese rocket stage, debris from that stage landed in the Indian Ocean late on May 8.
at around 10:24 p.m. EDT on Sunday, China’s human spaceflight agency CMSEO announced that debris from a roughly 30-meter-long, 5-meter-wide empty core stage of the Long March 5B crashed into the Indian Ocean near longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.
U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron confirmed reentry occurred around 10:15 p.m. EDT, although it’s not clear whether debris from the reentry hit land or the ocean.
On the 8th of May, when the rocket began its final circuits around the Earth, people took to social media to share their sightings and recordings.
Long March 5B successfully launched China’s first space station module into orbit on April 28 Eastern.
The rocket body entered and remained in orbit after launch, making it one of the largest uncontrolled reentry events in decades first .’s stage. Despite the Tianhe core module’s propulsion, the first stage’s orbit began to degrade as a result of air resistance.
Space business and public attention immediately became aware of the stage’s 7.8 kilometers per second speed and the fact that it orbited every 90 minutes between 41.5 degrees north and 41.5 degrees south latitude.
Regular reentry forecast updates were provided by the 18th SPCS, EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST), the Aerospace Corporation, and others as the orbit of the rocket stage decremented.
Reentry prediction windows were stretched over days earlier in the week because of atmospheric variations, but they narrowed to a two-hour window roughly four hours before projected reentry. Components such as tanks and thrusters made of stainless steel or titanium, which are heat resistant, can reach the ground even if the rest of the stage is destroyed.
Rocket Stage Fallout
Before the reentry, major media outlets focused their coverage on the story’s potential timing and location, international law, previous large uncontrolled reentries like Skylab and Salyut 7, and other related topics. The general public’s curiosity was likely piqued by the story’s ambiguous timing and location.
“We want to work with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. “The United States is dedicated to addressing the hazards of increased congestion due to space trash and increasing activities in space.”
Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, made a statement at a May 7 press conference saying that China is actively monitoring the situation and that the likelihood of harm to aviation or ground facilities is “very minimal.”
It’s unclear whether Wang was purposefully obscuring the difference between the first and upper stages when he said that it was “standard practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere”. Long March 5B’s core stage is an exceptional case of both.
Those dissatisfied with the coverage of the reentry also echoed the false equivalence by juxtaposing headlines from the Chinese 5B first stage coverage with reports following the reentry of a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage over Washington state in March after a Merlin engine failed to restart and effect a reentry over the Pacific Ocean in March.
Reentering the atmosphere soon after launch, most first stages of disposable rockets fall within a specified, uninhabited reentry zone. Deorbit burns are commonly performed by small upper stages to lower altitude and reduce time in orbit or to immediately reenter the Earth.
The Global Times, a Beijing tabloid published by the People’s Daily, an official journal of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, slammed “Western” media coverage. It asserted that “out of control” wreckage characterizations were an “invented idea,” citing space scientists. Space X’s Falcon 9 was described as “out of control wreckage” by the article’s authors.
“An old technique used by hostile states every time they see technology advancements in China, as they are nervous,” one respondent for the piece claimed.
“It is evident that China is failing to satisfy acceptable standards about their space debris,” said incoming NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement released shortly after 18 SPCS confirmed reentry.
For outer space activities to be safe, stable, secure, and sustainable in the long run, China and all other spacefaring nations and commercial organizations must operate responsibly and transparently in space.”
Next Space Station Launches
In 2022, China plans to launch two more Long March 5B rockets, one each to deliver the experiment modules Wentian and Mengtian into orbit alongside Tianhe. Whether China will respond to this circumstance, which has harmed the successful Tianhe launch, and how it will respond are both open questions at this time.
Two years after losing communication with Tiangong-1, China’s spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and exploded over the South Pacific. During microgravity verification tests, Tiangong-2’s crew and fuel were housed and refueled before being deorbited safely in 2019.
The re-entry of the Long March 5B could lead to a renewed focus on space traffic management and space debris. It appears, however, that there are barriers to a productive conversation regarding the occurrence, given the evident animosity.
A new worldwide standard for controlled de-orbiting of rocket stages has emerged, but it’s far from ubiquitous, according to Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation in an interview with SpaceNews.
“Governments like the United States didn’t want to develop a formal legislation because they occasionally need to diverge from it,” says Weeden. “It’s merely a voluntary guideline that’s binding on countries.”
The Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is planned to join the Tianhe space station in orbit within the next several weeks when a Long March 7 rocket launches the Tianzhou-2 spacecraft. Later in June, a manned Shenzhou-12 mission is expected. There will be no uncontrolled reentry of initial stages in any mission.
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