Rocket debris plummets to Earth

Debris from China’s Long March 5B rocket crashed down into the Indian Ocean

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— 3 minute read — By Safia Bartley

On 28th April, the core module of China’s new space station, the Tianhe, was launched into orbit. However, once the element of the rocket that allows for take-off reached the final stages of orbit, it was unable to be controlled and plummeted towards Earth.

In professional practice, this part of the rocket, known as the booster, would detach itself from the main rocket body and safely fall into the ocean once it reaches its peak. But for the March Long 5B, this was not the case. The 23-tonne piece of rocket debris had no predictable landing zone and caused a 10-day global panic as to where it would crash.

There was much debate between the U.S. and Chinese governments as to whether the unpredictable landing could lead to casualties, and whether or not to manually intervene. However, both countries declared there was no plan to do so and they instead let the free-falling debris take its course.

Eventually on 8th May, the panic came to an end after the booster re-entered the atmosphere over the Arabian Peninsula and landed in the Indian Ocean.

Although there were no casualties, this incident opened international discussions regarding orbital debris and responsible space-faring; this was not the first time China lost control over rocket debris.

In 2020, the same incident occurred, where a different Long March 5B rocket’s core fell uncontrollably into the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of this debris were also reported to have landed in the Ivory Coast. In addition to this, China’s first prototype launch of another space station, the Tiangong 1, was reported to have had an 8-tonne craft uncontrollably free-fall to Earth in April 2018. Although there were no casualties for any of the aforementioned incidents, China remains very secretive over their launch issues.

Following global criticism of China’s most recent Long March 5B incident, NASA Chief Bill Nelson released a statement stating that “space-faring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on earth and maximise transparency regarding those operations”. He also argued that “it is clear China is failing to meet their responsible standards regarding the space debris”. China is yet to respond to these comments.

Now the Tianhe space station is in orbit, it is expecting at least 10 more launches over the next year and a half before its final completion.