A large part of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket re-entered Earth uncontrollably in the early hours of this Friday (4). The impact took place in the Pacific Ocean, but before that, the exact location of the crash was unknown, which forced the partial closure of Spanish airspace.
The Long March 5B was launched in southern China four days ago. Its mission is to deliver the third module to the Chinese space station Tiangong. However, part of it broke up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. The case reignited debates about the importance of tracking space debris.
Spanish aviation authorities restricted the movement of flights in the northeast of the country, including Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. The safe zone took into account an area of 100 km on either side of the space object’s orbit.
Equipment that fell from the sky is “one of the biggest pieces of debris to re-enter [na atmosfera] In recent times”, according to the European Union’s Center for Space Surveillance and Monitoring Operations. It is about 30 meters long. To give you an idea, 23 tons is equivalent to about 25 popular cars put together.
The Chinese rocket has no safety features
The official Twitter account of the United States Space Command confirmed that the rocket landed in the Pacific Ocean at 7:01 a.m. Brasilia time.
“#USSPACECOM confirms that the People’s Republic of China rocket Long March 5B #CZ5B re-entered the atmosphere over the South-Central Pacific Ocean on 4/11 at 4:01 MDT/10:01 UTC. For details on the impact site of the uncontrolled re-entry, we refer you to #PRC Sent,” the message read.
This type of unplanned action is not recommended due to high security risks. To avoid that, some rockets are reused after entering Earth’s atmosphere – like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Others already have diversions that guarantee a fall only at sea. However, Chinese equipment does not offer any of these features.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Jao Legion, responded about the case. “That’s understandable [este] This type of rocket uses special technology so that most of the components are destroyed during re-entry into the atmosphere by detonation, and the probability of damage to flight operations and the ground is very low,” Zhao confirmed.
Tracking space debris – or regulating the type that enters Earth irregularly – is not part of international agreements. This means that such incidents are more likely to happen in the future.
“The truth is, there are no laws, no international agreements governing what you can do in terms of re-entry,” said Marlon Sorge, executive director of the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for the Study of Orbital and Re-entry Debris.
This is not the first time
In recent years, launches by the China National Space Administration have caused other alarming situations. This is the fourth runaway space debris event in Earth’s atmosphere. This year, in July, the 25-tonne Long March 5B core fell into the Indian Ocean.
In April 2021, debris from another mission from the Tiangong space station also fell into the ocean. In May 2020, pieces of another vehicle hit the ground in West Africa. Debris is estimated to be spread across Côte d’Ivoire.
The Chinese space agency’s plans don’t stop there. Six more launches of the Long March 5B rocket are planned for mid-2023.
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