China's new parachute system could solve its rocket reentry problem

Pieces of a Long March 5B rocket rained down over a village on the Ivory Coast in 2020.
Chris Young
An illustration of an uncontrolled entry ending up in the ocean
An illustration of an uncontrolled entry ending up in the ocean


China's space program has made massive progress in recent years.

Aside from finalizing the construction of its Tiangong space station, the country has also sent a rover to the Moon and Mars. It's all part of the country's ambitious plans to become one of the world's great space powers, capable of eventually sending humans to the Moon and Mars.

However, the country's space operations have been criticized on the global stage following several uncontrolled reentries of its Long March 5B rocket core stages, one of which caused damage when it crashed down over a village on the Ivory Coast.

The country has always cried foul, claiming that the bad press surrounding its rocket reentries is part of a Western smear campaign. Now though, it is developing a solution. China is developing a parachute system that will reportedly guide rocket boosters to specific landing zones.

China's uncontrolled rocket reentries

Last year, in an interview with IE, Harvard astronomer and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said, China is "mistaken" in stating that the bad press around its Long March 5B reentries is part of a smear campaign.

"These reentries are objectively worse than what other countries are doing," he explained. "I praise China's space program when it does good things, as it often does. And I criticize them when they are bad. This is bad."

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted last year that "the People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth," despite the "significant risk of loss of life and property."

No Long March 5B reentry has resulted in human injury, but debris from one of the rocket's core stages landed over a village on the Ivory Coast in 2020. Last year, meanwhile, Spain had to momentarily close down part of its airspace as one of the rocket cores flew over the country moments before crashing down in the ocean.

New parachute system could provide the solution

Now, according to the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a new system they developed was tested on a Long March-3B (CZ-3B) rocket on Friday, June 9.

In a statement, CALT claimed that the parachute system allowed them to narrow the range of the booster landing area by 80 percent. This could enable controlled reentries of rocket debris, as well as the reusability of rocket parts.

The new system features an electrical subsystem that weighs 30 kg (66 lbs). It is designed to deploy automatically at a certain altitude to guide the booster to the predetermined landing area, likely over the ocean.

If the new system does work, it will likely take some time to integrate into China's Long March 5 launch vehicles. It will be interesting to see whether China will wait before using its Long March 5 rockets to lift planned expansion modules to the Tiangong space station.

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