China’s 21-ton booster will fall to Earth after launch from space station

The 23-ton Long March 5B rocket that carried the Wentian Lab Moduletook off from Hainan Island at 2:22 p.m. local time on Sunday, July 24, and the module successfully docked with the Chinese orbital outpost.
Its job done, the rocket has entered an uncontrolled descent into Earth’s atmosphere and it’s unclear where it will land. The uncontrolled descent marks the third time the country has been accused of not properly managing space debris from its rocket stage.
“It’s a 20-ton metallic object. Although it will disintegrate upon entering the atmosphere, many pieces, some quite large, will reach the surface,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of a recent study on the risk of casualties from space debris.
Space junk poses an extremely minimal risk to humans, Byers said, but it’s possible that larger pieces could cause damage if they land in populated regions. Byers said that due to the increase in space debristhese small odds are becoming more likely, especially in the Global South, according to research published in the natural astronomy newspaper, with rocket bodies about three times more likely to land at the latitudes of Jakarta, Dhaka and Lagos than those in New York, Beijing or Moscow.

“This risk is entirely avoidable because there are now technologies and mission designs that can provide controlled re-entries (usually in areas far from the oceans) instead of uncontrolled and therefore entirely random ones,” he said per E-mail.

This is the space cemetery where the International Space Station will be buried

Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, said international best practice is to conduct a controlled re-entry, targeting a distant part of the ocean, whenever the risk of loss is too high.

He added that the rocket’s reentry zone was geographically limited between the latitudes of 41 degrees south and 41 degrees north of the equator.

US Space Command said it would monitor the return of the Chinese rocket to Earth, according to a spokesperson.

Based on varying atmospheric conditions, the rocket stage’s exact point of entry into Earth’s atmosphere “cannot be identified until a few hours after re-entry”, the spokesperson said, but it is estimated that it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere around August 1st.

The 18th Space Defense Squadron, part of the US Army tracking re-entry, will also provide daily updates on its location.

CNN has contacted the Chinese Space Agency for comment.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said space junk weighing more than 2.2 tons is usually brought to a specific location in its first Earth orbit.

“The thing is, things this big don’t normally get into orbit without an active control system,” he said.

Without “an active control system and a restartable engine to bring it back to Earth…it just falls into orbit and eventually burns up due to friction with the atmosphere”, McDowell told CNN.

Debris from Chinese rockets crashed to Earth.  It is not the first time.

China was heavily criticized last year for its handling of space debris after launching another module on a similar rocket. Its remains dove in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives 10 days after launch.

NASA said China failed to “meet responsible standards.”

“Space nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth from space object reentries and maximize transparency regarding these operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the time.

China responded to criticism by blame the United States for “raising fears” about rocket re-entry and accusing American scientists and NASA of “acting against their conscience” and being “anti-intellectual”.
In 2020, a Chinese rocket core – which weighed nearly 20 tons – re-entered Earth’s atmosphere out of control, passing directly over Los Angeles and New York’s Central Park before finally plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.

Space junk such as old satellites re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere daily, although most of it goes unnoticed as it burns up long before it can touch the ground.

It is only large space junk – such as spacecraft and rocket parts – that poses a very small risk to humans and ground infrastructure.

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