An out-of-control Russian rocket tumbled back to Earth yesterday, crashing into the Pacific Ocean just minutes before a possible impact could have occured in Mexico, the United States, or Canada. The Persei upper stage rocket, which carried a dummy payload into space as part of Russia’s Angara A5 rocket test, made an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere at 1:08 pm PT , according to the 18th Space Control Squadron from U.S. Space Force. From there, the rocket, or what was left of it after burning and breaking-up in the atmosphere from re-entry, would have crashed into open water of the Pacific Ocean.
At the time of its final decent, the European Space Agency (ESA) estimated that the Persei rocket was traveling at 16,920 mph.
On December 27, the Russian Angara A5 rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Named after a river in Siberia, the Angara rocket is the first heavy-lift launch vehicle used by the Russians in decades. The December 27 launch was the third test flight of the giant rocket. While the launch was flawless, an upper-stage rocket failed to successfully fire.
While the Angara’s first two stages fired as planned, the third stage, a Persei rocket, failed to fire a second time. While the first fire helped put the dummy payload it was carrying into low-Earth orbit, the failure of the second fire failed to put the dummy payload into a geostationary orbit. Instead, the 20 ton mass tumbled out of control to Earth. While Roscosmos shared pictures and a congratulations message before and immediately after the Angara launch, they’ve offered no comment on the Persei rocket and the failure for it to fire, deferring instead to the Russian military which was responsible for the launch. As of press time, the Russian military has still offered no comment on this rocket.
NORAD, short for North American Aerospace Defense Command, marked the tumbling rocket and payload as “50505”; various websites such as SATFLARE, N2YO.com, and Aerospace Corporation provided tracking maps and forecasts of the doomed rocket.
This is not the first time an out-of-control rocket has threatened the United States. In May, the Long March 5 main stage tumbled back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner. While much of the rocket stage burned-up upon re-entry, some parts did survive re-entry and impacted Earth near the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
If the rocket were to create damage in another country, there are international treaties in place that would make the launching country potentially liable for damages. That happened in 1978 when a Soviet reconnaissance satellite Kosmos 954 made an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over Canada. Debris eventually crashed into Canada’s Northwest Territories, depositing toxic waste into the soil at the crash site. Citing the the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and 1972 Space Liability Convention, the Canadian government decided to use the Liability Convention to make the U.S.S.R. pay for damages. After a period of negotiation, the Soviet Union agreed to pay Canada 6 million Canadian dollars for damage. However, it is unclear whether the full amount was every paid.
On average, 100-200 tons of space junk re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner every year. While most of the objects are small and harmless and do burn-up prior to reaching the Earth’s surface, large objects like this Russian rocket can bring harm to the surface if they survive re-entry.