China will once again allow an out-of-control rocket to fall out of the sky

It's not the first time a 21-metric-ton Long March 5B rocket core stage could fall over a populated area.
Chris Young
An illustration of a rocket crashing into the sea
An illustration of a rocket crashing into the sea

alexzy3d/iStock 

Here we go again.

China launched the final module of its Tiangong space station this week, on October 31. While the country's space administration deserves plaudits for making China the only country to currently operate its own orbital station, global attention has quickly turned — once again — to the rocket core stage it left in orbit to make an uncontrolled, potentially dangerous reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

A Long March 5B core stage will perform an uncontrolled reentry once again

Initial reports show that the 21-metric-ton core stage of the Long March 5B rocket that lifted the Mengtian laboratory module to orbit will perform an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at 10:21 p.m. ET on November 4 — with a margin of error of approximately 16 hours.

This is the fourth time China has allowed a large remnant from one of its rockets to descend into Earth's atmosphere. While the rocket core will most likely fall over the ocean — as was the case on the last two occasions — there is a slight chance it could fall over a populated area, where it could damage property and even lead to a loss of life. In 2020, parts of a Long March 5B rocket fell over a village on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The Long March 5B rocket took off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan this Monday to deliver the third and final module to China's Tiangong space station. Since then, the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) has been tracking the object by analyzing data from the U.S. Space Force's Space Surveillance Network. The organization predicts the rocket core will reenter Earth's atmosphere at 10:21 p.m. ET on Friday, November 4, though this is subject to change.

As we get closer to the reentry point, the "debris footprint," which refers to the area over which the rocket core will break up and fall, will also become more evident.

Bill Nelson: "All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices"

China has been criticized globally for its recklessness in deorbiting its Long March 5B core stages. In July, China's previous space station module launch led to criticism over a lack of transparency regarding its booster reentries.

At the time, 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."

Since 1990, the U.S. hasn't allowed any spacecraft or object weighing over 10 tons to make an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere for the safety of people and property on the ground. Stay posted for more updates on the Long March 5B core's trajectory and eventual reentry.

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