China sends another rocket stage flying uncontrollably toward Earth

There are a lot of things China would like you to pay attention to when it comes to its just-completed Tiangong (“Palace in the Sky”) space station — and there’s one thing the country would very much like you to ignore.

On the other hand, there are a thousand or more scientific studies that crew members hope to perform during the decade or more that the station will be in operation; there are 17 nations that will experiment with flying and maybe some astronauts, along with the Chinese taikonauts; and this is the rate at which the three-module station was built.

The main module – Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”) – was released on April 29, 2021; the second module – Wentian (“In Search of the Heavens”) – lifted off on July 24, 2022; and just this week, on Oct. 31 at 3:37 a.m. ET, a Long March 5B rocket blasted off with the third and final component, the 22-ton Mengtian (“Dreams of the Skies”) module measuring 18 m (59 ft) long, 4, 2 m (13.8 ft) wide — T-station completion.

As for that part, the Chinese wouldn’t immediately discuss it: There was one other piece of hardware — the 10-story-tall, 23-ton Long March 5B first stage — that reached space with the Mengtian before it began an uncontrolled, somersault. plunges back to Earth, causing him to land, well, no one can say where.

This isn’t the first time the Chinese have threatened the planet with a falling piece of the Long March. The first stage of the missile that launched both Wentian and Tianhei followed a similar uncontrolled return trajectory – both crashed into the Indian Ocean. The first Long March 5B launch in 2020 resulted in an impact that scattered debris across parts of Ivory Coast, although no one was injured.

“Once again,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement early this morning, as the location of the rocket stage remains unknown, “the People’s Republic of China is taking unnecessary risks with the uncontrolled re-entry of the rocket stage of their Long March 5B rocket stage. ”

He continued: “They did not share specific trajectory information that is needed to predict landing zones and reduce risk. It is extremely important that all space nations be accountable and transparent in their space activities and follow established best practices, especially for uncontrolled re-entry of … debris, which could very well result in major damage or loss of life.

Reassuringly, this risk to life is relatively small, as more than 70% of the world’s surface is water and much of the planet’s land mass is uninhabitable. Henry Herzfeld, a research professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told TIME, “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. The chance of any one person being struck by lightning is probably higher.

Shortly after Nelson made his announcement, the good news spread that the Earthlings seemed to have dodged a Long March bullet again. Like the US Space Command tweeted today the spent first stage re-entered the atmosphere and landed harmlessly in the south central pacific at 6:01 am ET.

Still, it remains not only provocative but baffling that China is not taking greater precautions with its Long March 5 Bs. After all, safely disposing of a rocket stage is a relatively easy thing to do. As a rule, government and private launch vehicles maintain a reserve of fuel in the tanks of the spent stage so that its engine can be restarted, directing it to a guaranteed drop in the ocean. SpaceX goes further by landing the first stages on an ocean barge and reusing them.

“We have the technology to control re-entry,” Herzfeld says. “Why China doesn’t use it, I don’t know.”

The question is particularly puzzling since China is also a member of the 1972 Liability Conventionpact, brokered by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which obliges signatory nations to compensate other countries for injury or damage caused by activities in outer space.

However, China has been tight-lipped about why it is allowing its Long March 5B stages to simply free-fall back to Earth, and whether it ever plans to modify the technology to make a controlled re-entry possible. Even with the Liability Convention holding the state responsible, Beijing may make the calculation that it is cheaper to pay for the damage than to repair the missile.

“They know their duties under this regime, but it’s all a bit hollow,” Herzfeld says. “I mean, all they have to do is write a check.”

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger c [email protected].

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