China is at it again, dumping massive chunks of debris back onto the Earth while withholding critical information on where and when it will crash.
Last week, the People’s Republic of China blasted off, for the second time, its powerful booster rocket—the Long March-5B—to deliver the second of three modules in its pursuit of establishing a permanent home in space. Although the space mission was “successful,” most of its rocket debris fell back to Earth, causing anxiety for neighboring nations about the exact location of the impact.
#USSPACECOM can confirm the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approx 10:45 am MDT on 7/30. We refer you to the #PRC for further details on the reentry’s technical aspects such as potential debris dispersal+ impact location.
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) July 30, 2022
Despite the lack of critical information on the “specific trajectory” from Beijing, the United States and some notable space agencies predicted that the spoilage would fall over the Indian Ocean on Saturday—which it did.
Our latest prediction for #CZ5B rocket body reentry is:
🚀30 Jul 2022 17:08 UTC ± 1 hour
Reentry will be along one of the ground tracks shown here. Follow this page for updates: https://t.co/SxrMtcJnj0 pic.twitter.com/zmFX2OJG6N
— The Aerospace Corporation (@AerospaceCorp) July 30, 2022
Subsequently, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reiterated the crucial role of advanced information dissemination from “all space-faring nations” to allow predictions and reduce the impact risk of “potential debris,” and “ensure the safety of people and properties here on Earth.”
All space-faring nations, including China, have recognized and agreed to this, but again, Beijing seems to neglect its responsibility.
According to news reports, the rocket debris from China’s massive booster rocket re-entered the Earth “around 12:45 PM EDT (1645 GMT) after most of it burned up” and fell over the Indian Ocean. Some Malaysians even captured footage of what appears to be rocket debris falling from the sky, thankfully without any casualties or property damage.
— Sanchit Shinde (@SanchitShinde16) July 31, 2022
Even if the odds are one-in-10,000, China’s “recklessness” in allowing most of the rocket’s remnants—weighing roughly 22,000 kg—to return to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry could pose a severe threat to the safety of people and property.
Aerospace Corp, a government-funded nonprofit research organization, cited the guidelines set by the Interagency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) on orbital debris mitigation, emphasizing the responsibility of space-faring nations to reduce the risk. Of “how much debris survives reentry or locating the reentry above uninhabited regions.”
The third time is not a charm
As mentioned, this is not the first time Beijing has faced criticism for failing to meet international standards on managing space debris.
The recent launch of the Long March-5B was the second deployment since its maiden flight in 2020. Remnants from the first booster rocket also tumbled back down to Earth and into the Ivory Coast, resulting in several damaged buildings. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.
The same thing happened a year later when another chunk of debris from another of its booster rockets came rolling back into the atmosphere and landed in the Indian Ocean, which the Chinese government also kept mum about the expected debris trajectory details.
Nelson issued a nearly identical statement to his most recent one, highlighting the importance of reducing risk by minimizing re-entries and increasing transparency about these operations. But “it is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding [its] space debris,” he added.
Aside from the Long March-5B incidents, China also had two previous records for falling space junk. 1) during the decommissioning of the country’s first space station, Tiangong-1, that crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016, and 2) the literally shooting down of its defunct weather satellites using missiles in 2007. The air strike resulted in a field of debris, alarming other nations that it could have jeopardized their satellites.
Space-faring nations, including the US, purposefully built their spacecraft to avoid large, uncontrollable re-entries—especially after NASA’s space station incident in 1979, when the Skylab crashed from orbit and into Australia.
The quest to establish a permanent space base
China’s state television, CCTV, broadcast the live feed of the 23-tonne laboratory cabin model, the Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”), blasting into space at the back of the country’s most powerful rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Center located on the southern island of Hainan last week.
This second module is said to be the “largest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever built.”
The Wentian lab module, with a length of 17.9 m and a diameter of 4.2 m, will serve as the astronauts’ primary laboratory, where they will conduct scientific experiments alongside the Mengti”n (“Dreaming of the Hea”ens”) lab module, which is scheduled to launch later this year. Furthermore, the recently launched module includes an airlock module and can carry up to eight experiment cabinets and 22 extravehicular payload adaptors over its hull.
Once completed, the space station will be a significant milestoneChina’sna’s three-decade-long space program that was approved in 1992 and initially code-na”ed “Project “21.” It consists of three modules: Tian”e (“Harmony of the Hea”ens”), a living quarters for visiting astronauts, and two lab modules, Wentian and Mengtian.