A 23-ton piece of space debris from China's launch of a Long March 5B rocket has fallen safely into the south-central Pacific Ocean after creating questions over where it will come down once again.
During the launch of China's Tiangong Space Station's third and final module, debris from a Long March 5B rocket was found. Likewise, China allowed the core stage of the rocket to reach orbit without any means of returning to Earth safely, an increasingly more common event. Particularly as the Long March 5B was not designed with any features that enable it to be safely deorbited after launch.
Based on the best available data, the world once again anticipated where and when the rocket space debris would fall. Fortunately, the massive rocket body fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, according to U.S. Space Command.
"#USSPACECOM 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 a.m. MDT/10:01 UTC on 11/4," the command wrote on Twitter this morning (Nov. 4). Space Command added that for further details, "we once again refer you to the #PRC" (People's Republic of China).
A section of Spain's airspace was closed as a precaution after falling rocket debris was tracked during uncontrolled reentry, according to the Spanish air traffic control blog Cuentadores Aéreos.
China National Space Administration launches have resulted in four such events in recent years. In July 2022, a 25-ton core stage of the Long March 5B fell into the Indian Ocean. Previously, in April 2021, a Tiangong space station core stage left over from another mission scattered debris into the same body of water. Pieces of a Long March 5B were reported to have fallen over West Africa in May 2020, littering Ivory Coast with space junk.
Other rockets are designed with measures in place to ensure their core stages are steered into the ocean after launch, while others like SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9, are designed to come down in one piece and be reused. China's most powerful rocket has no such measures in place.
Unfortunately, there are no international agreements in place to prevent these incidents from occurring again in the future, said Marlon Sorge, Executive Director for The Aerospace Corporation's Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies during a media briefing on Wednesday (Nov. 2). "And the reality is there aren't any real laws, treaties, internationally that govern what you're allowed to do in terms of reentry," Sorge said. "So there is no direct legal way to control what's going on on an international level."
Currently, China's space agency has at least six more launches planned for the Long March 5B rocket, the soonest of which could come as soon as mid-2023.
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