China's out-of-control rocket crashed into Earth over the Pacific Ocean

Spain had to briefly close its airspace due to the risk of debris taking down an aircraft.
Chris Young
An illustration of rocket debris crashing into the Pacific Ocean
An illustration of rocket debris crashing into the Pacific Ocean

alexyz3d/iStock 

For the fourth time now, China fired its Long March 5B rocket into the skies only to allow it to perform a potentially dangerous reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

In a tweet, U.S. Space Command has now confirmed the latest Long March 5B rocket core "re-entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean at 4:01 a.m. MDT/10:01 UTC".

China's space administration doesn't perform a controlled reentry of its expendable Long March 5B rocket core stage. Instead, it allows the 21-ton rocket part to slowly deorbit, meaning it could fall anywhere over a large area of the Earth, including over populated regions.

While most Long March 5B launches have resulted in rocket debris raining down over the ocean, a 2020 mission ended with large rocket parts falling on a village in the Ivory Coast, Africa.

The rocket debris travels at such high speeds in orbit that, roughly an hour before today's reentry over the Pacific, Spain was forced to close its airspace over its northeastern regions due to fears it could down an aircraft.

Spain briefly closes its airspace due to China's rocket debris

China's latest rocket debris reentry came after the country launched the third and final module of its Tiangong space station to orbit on Monday, October 31. While the country's space administration deserves plaudits for making China the only country to currently operate its own orbital station, the global press quickly turned its attention to the uncontrolled rocket core stage falling out of the sky.

Officials in China have steadfastly referred to Western coverage of its Long March 5B rocket reentries as a smear campaign against the country's space industry. In an email exchange with IE, Harvard astronomer and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said China is "mistaken", adding that "these reentries are objectively worse than what other countries are doing. 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."

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The seriousness of the situation was highlighted when Spain had to momentarily close airspaces over its northeastern regions, including Catalonia, home to busy international airport El Prat in Barcelona.

Thankfully, a short while later, the rocket debris was confirmed to have fallen harmlessly over the Pacific Ocean. The reason Spain had to close its airspace, even though the rocket debris eventually fell on the other side of the globe, is that the large rocket chunk travels at roughly 17,000 mph (27,360 km/h), meaning the estimated reentry point is constantly revised and changed — if the prediction is off by an hour, for example, that means the predicted reentry point will be off by roughly 17,000 miles (27,360 km).

Before the Pacific Ocean reentry was confirmed, a Reuters report quoted Spanish air traffic control services as saying, "due to the risk associated with the passage of the space object CZ-5B through the Spanish airspace, flights have been totally restricted from 09:38 a.m. to 10:18 a.m. in Catalonia and other communities."

Long March 5B will launch again next year

China has no plans to cease Long March 5B launches, despite criticism on the global stage. In July, after China's last uncontrolled rocket core reentry, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted, "the People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth. All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property."

China's space administration has at least one Long March 5B launch planned for next year to launch its Hubble-rivaling telescope, Xuntian, into orbit. McDowell explained to IE it is likely China's ongoing Long March 5B launches will eventually damage private property and that there is also a "smaller risk of casualties." The Harvard astronomer also added that no other Chinese rocket poses the same risk as Long March 5B, as "this is the only one that leaves such a large core stage in orbit." In order to resolve the issue, China would likely have to "add a boost motor to the payloads, and that would be expensive," he explained.

In 1990, for the safety of people and property on the ground, the U.S. banned any U.S. operators from allowing a spacecraft or object weighing over 10 tons to make an uncontrolled reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

Editor's note 07/11/22: Added more information regarding Spain's airspace closure for clarity.

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