An out-of-control spent rocket launched by China in recent days crashed into the south-central Pacific Ocean earlier today after threatening 88% of the population around the globe; NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement condemning China’s approach of disposing spent rockets.
“Once again, the People’s Republic of China is taking unnecessary risks with the uncontrolled rocket stage reentry of their Long March 5B rocket stage. They did not share specific trajectory information which is needed to predict landing zones and reduce risk. This is the PRC’s fourth uncontrolled reentry since May 2020, and each of these reentries have been the largest in the last 30 years,” Nelson’s statement read.
“It is critical that all spacefaring nations are responsible and transparent in their space activities and follow established best practices, especially, for the uncontrolled reentry of a large rocket body debris –debris that could very well result in major damage or loss of life.”
Based on projections provided by Aerospace Corporation, a large part of the continental United States and Hawaii were at risk of being impacted by the rocket or its debris over a multi-hour window earlier today.
U.S. Space Command, the 11th Combatant Command in the Department of Defense, confirmed that two re-entry events occurred with this out-of-control rocket. Earlier today, they wrote that they “can confirm the People’s Republic of China Long March 5B #CZ5B rocket re-entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean at 4:01 am MDT. For details on the uncontrolled reentry’s impact locations, we once again refer you to the PRC.” They later confirmed a second atmospheric reentry over the northeast Pacific Ocean at 4:06 am MDT.
“The general rule of thumb is that 20–40% of the mass of a large object will reach the ground, but the exact number depends on the design of the object,” wrote Marlon Sorgem a technical fellow for the Space Innovation Directorate of the Aerospace Corporation in an online question and answer session specific to an out-of-control Chinese rocket. “In this case, we would expect about five to nine metric tons. Generally, for an upper stage, we see small and medium tanks survive more or less intact, and large engine components. The large tanks and the skin of this core stage are likely to come apart. We will also see lightweight items such as insulation fall out. The melting point of the materials used will make a difference in what remains.”
It is unknown how much of the rocket made to the surface; it is unlikely China will provide any comment.
This is the fourth time in three years China has launched a massive rocket into space with no plans to safely return it to Earth. Despite international condemnation of China’s last out-of-control rocket which struck Earth in May of last year, which followed another similar impact in May of 2020, China has not employed any new technology or safety mechanisms to steer the rocket back to Earth safely, as SpaceX rockets do, or deposit rockets in the South Pacific ocean far from any land mass or ocean shipping routes, as what most rocket launchers around the world do when sending satellites into space.
While the end of this week will be the fourth time for an out-of-control rocket from China to crash into the Earth in as many years, other countries have had mishaps too. In January of this year, a rocket from Russia crashed after an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Even the U.S. and NASA has problems every now and then too; according to the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, a woman walking through a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma was apparently hit by debris from a NASA rocket. While she was walking outside through a park, she saw a fireball in the sky above and felt something strike her shoulder. Fortunately, the palm-sized chunk of metal didn’t injure her, but analysis showed the debris was a part of a fuel tank from a Delta II rocket that NASA had used to launch a satellite into space.
In May 2021, NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson released a statement about the then-out-of-control Chinese rocket: “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris. It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
On Halloween, October 31, China launched their massive Long March 5B rocket to deliver the third and final experiment module to China’s Tiangong Space Station. Known as the Mengtian module, it was lifted into space successfully by an estimated 22.5 metric ton core booster. Unable to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) due to restrictions imposed by the United States, China has embarked on building their own called “Tiangong.” With the ISS due to be retired in the coming years, Tiangong may remain as the only working space station in Earth’s orbit.
The Long March 5, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, roughly matches the capabilities of American rockets like the ULA Delta IV Heavy and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The massive rocket that was used to bring the GOES-R and GOES-S weather satellites to orbit was a ULA Atlas V; despite its size, it’s considerably smaller and less powerful than the Long March 5. The Long March 5 core stage has roughly 7x the mass of the Space X Falcon 9 second stage. The Long March 5b launches from a spaceport on Hainan Island in southeastern China.
The Wenchang facility on Hainan Island allows launch vehicles to soar over the South China Sea; previous launches lifted-off from inland launch facilities, forcing used rocket stages to fall onto land. Previous rocket stages have crashed into people’s homes in China. In the United States, such launches lift-off from launchpads near water, allowing spent rocket stages to tumble back to the ocean. Prior to such an event, NASA in partnership with local government agencies, put the projected splash-down area as a “no-fly” / “no-boat” area until the debris is safely down.
However, as was the case when China launched space station components in 2020 and 2021, the spent Long March 5 main stage tumbled back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner today. Of the uncontrolled reentries of Long March rockets in 2020, 2021, and 2022, two resulted in large debris landing near populated areas. According to Aerospace Corporation, over 88% of the world’s population lives under today’s rocket’s potential debris footprint.