Another Chinese rocket is expected to crash back to Earth this week. After delivering the third and final module to China’s fledgling space station, the core stage of yet another Chinese Long March 5B rocket is set to crash back to Earth this week.
According to researchers at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, the roughly 25-ton (23 metric tonnes) rocket stage that launched on Oct. 31 to deliver the Mengtian laboratory cabin module to the Tiangong space station is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 11:51 p.m. EDT, give or take 14 hours.
According to The Aerospace Corporation, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit research center based in California, the possible debris field includes the United States, Central, and South America, Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
China has disposed of its rockets in an uncontrolled manner for the fourth time in two years. Previously, metallic objects fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, debris landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, and rocket fragments crashed dangerously close to villages in Borneo.
The first stage of a rocket, the booster, is typically the largest and most powerful section of the rocket—and the least likely to completely burn up upon reentry. T
here are workarounds for this problem. Engineers try to aim rockets so that their booster sections do not escape into orbit, instead landing harmlessly in the ocean. If boosters do reach orbit, some are programmed to fire a few extra bursts from their engines to guide them back into a controlled reentry.
However, once the Long March 5B booster engines have stopped, they cannot be restarted, dooming the massive booster to spiral around Earth before landing in an unknown location.
China has insisted that uncontrolled reentries are common practice, and concerns about potential damage have been dismissed as “shameless hype.” Hua Chunying, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ then-spokesperson, accused Western reporting of bias and “textbook-style double standards” in its coverage of China’s falling rockets in 2021.
For example, Hua claims that in March 2021, debris from a falling SpaceX rocket smashed into a farm in Washington state, an event that Western news outlets covered positively and with “romantic words.” A year later, in August 2022, the second set of SpaceX debris landed on an Australian sheep farm.
According to The Aerospace Corporation, the chances of someone being harmed by a falling rocket are small (ranging from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 230), and the risk to single individuals is even lower (between 1 in 10 trillion and 1 in 6 trillion).
Nonetheless, because the rocket’s debris path crosses roughly 88% of the world’s population, the chances of harm are far greater than the internationally accepted casualty risk threshold for uncontrolled reentries of 1 in 10,000.
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks of reentries of space objects to people and property on Earth and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement following the 2021 Long March 5B crash landing. “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible space debris standards.”
The T-shaped Tiangong space station, with a mass one-quarter that of the International Space Station, is expected to stay in low Earth orbit for at least ten years. The station’s rotating crews of three astronauts will use it to conduct experiments and tests on new technologies such as ultracold atomic clocks.
China has been increasing its space presence in recent years in order to catch up with the United States and Russia, having landed a rover on the far side of the moon in 2019 and retrieved rock samples from the moon’s surface in 2020. China has also stated that by 2029, it will have established a lunar research station at the moon’s south pole.