According to analysts, the newest large piece of Chinese space trash will return to Earth at the end of the month. The item in question is the Long March 5B rocket’s roughly 25-ton (22.5 metric tonnes) core stage, which was launched on Sunday, July 24, to orbit the second module of China’s Tiangong space station, which is still under construction. The Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies at The Aerospace Corporation predicts that the rocket body will remain in orbit for about a week (CORDS).
They’ve examined monitoring information obtained by the Space Surveillance Network of the U.S. Space Force, and they estimate that the rocket body will reenter Earth’s atmosphere on July 31 at approximately 3:30 a.m. EDT (0730 GMT), plus or minus 22 hours. With time, that forecast will be adjusted and updated. Where the Chinese rocket will touch down cannot yet be predicted, according to CORDS experts (opens in new tab). However, reentry will take place somewhere between 41 degrees north and 41 degrees south latitude based on its orbit. And not all of the object will be destroyed by air on Earth.
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The Aerospace Corporation explained the approaching rocket fall by stating that “the usual rule of thumb is that 20-40 percent of the mass of a large object will reach the earth, although the actual number depends on the design of the object” (opens in new tab). In this situation, we would anticipate five to nine tonnes (5.5 to 9.9 metric tonnes). The core stages of most orbital-class rockets are made to land quickly after takeoff, safely over sparsely inhabited areas of terra firma, or to perform powered, vertical landings to allow for reuse, as the first stages of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy do. However, the Long March 5B core also enters orbit with the payload, resulting in a near-future uncontrolled atmospheric drag-driven crash back to Earth.
Such aimless dives were observed on the two prior Long March 5B missions. (The rocket has now completed three missions in total.) The launch took place on May 5, 2020. A week or so later, a Long March 5B body crashed into the ocean off the west coast of Africa, possibly dumping some debris(opens in new tab) in the Ivory Coast. Ten days after Tiangong’s Tianhe core module was launched in May 2021, the second Long March 5B reentered the atmosphere above the Indian Ocean. Additionally, in April 2018, Tiangong 1, a test space lab that aided in the development of the Tiangong space station, plummeted returned to Earth over the Pacific Ocean.
No reported injuries were caused by any of these instances. However, exploration specialists have criticised China for allowing such space trash falls to happen because of the possibility for harm and damage to infrastructure on the ground. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated in a statement(opens in new tab) that was published just before Tianhe’s Long March 5B body came down last year that “spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of reentries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations.”
With regard to its space trash, Nelson continued, “It is obvious that China is failing to satisfy acceptable standards.” “To ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term viability of outer space activities, China and all spacefaring states and commercial organisations must operate responsibly and transparently in space.” Three modules will ultimately make up the Tiangong space station. This fall, China is anticipated to launch the third and last module on a Long March 5B.