The Chinese missile went down.
The 23-ton core stage of a Long March 5B booster crashed back to Earth on Saturday evening (May 8), ending 10 controversial days in the air that caught the world’s attention and a wider conversation about debris in orbit and responsible space travel.
Long March 5B reentered the atmosphere over the Arabian Peninsula at around 10:15 p.m. EDT on Saturday (0215 GMT on Sunday, May 9), according to US Space Command.
“It is not known whether the debris hit land or water,” wrote space command officials in a brief update on Saturday evening.
However, some analysts have identified a watery grave for rocket piles that managed to weather the intense heat of re-entry. For example Space-Track.org stated on Twitter on Saturday evening that the Long March “fell north of the Maldives into the Indian Ocean”, an idyllic chain of islands off the southwest coast of India.
The Long March 5B launched the core module for China’s new space station on April 28th. However, instead of falling safely into the ocean after its work, the rocket’s first stage reached orbit and became a piece of space junk just waiting to crash on its home planet after feeling enough atmospheric resistance.
And this was not an isolated incident. The same thing happened last year with another Long March 5B core that fell uncontrollably across the Atlantic off the West African coast. Some big debris from that re-entry apparently made it to the ground in the Ivory Coast nationHowever, no injuries were reported.
In addition, China’s first prototype space laboratory, Tiangong 1, which was supposed to pave the way for the new space station, had its own space debris phase upon completion of its mission. The 8-ton vehicle fell uncontrollably to earth in April 2018 and burned down over the Pacific.
According to astronomer and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, only three man-made objects heavier than these two Long March 5B cores have ever fallen uncontrollably from space.
These three are the 83-ton Skylab space station that crashed over Australia in July 1979. the 50-ton upper stage of the Saturn V rocket, with which Skylab was launched and which landed west of Madeira over the Atlantic in January 1975; and the Salyut 7 space station of the Soviet Union and the connected Kosmos-1686 module, which together weighed about 43 tons and re-imported via Argentina in February 1991. (Unfortunately, the space shuttle Columbia could also be considered here; the 117-ton orbiter broke apart from its re-entry in February 2003, in which all seven astronauts on board were killed.)
Many people in the space community have criticized China for the March 5 incidents and accused the nation’s space program of being negligent, if not reckless. Such a rebuke came on Saturday from the new NASA boss Bill Nelson.
“Space nations must minimize the risk to people and property on Earth from re-entry of space objects and maximize transparency regarding these operations,” wrote Nelson in a statement released prior to the launch of the rocket.
“It is clear that China is not meeting responsible standards for its space debris,” he added. “It is important that China and all space nations and trading companies in space act responsibly and transparently to ensure the safety, stability and long-term sustainability of space activities.”
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