Large segment of the rocket that launched main module of China’s first permanent space station made an uncontrolled entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean with remnants falling at a location to the west of Maldives on Sunday drawing US criticism over a lack of transparency and decency and putting an end to speculation on whether the debris would hit a populated area on the Earth’s surface or somewhere in water bodies. The debris came from the upper stage of a Long March 5B rocket which was launched into space on April 29 for putting into orbit a core module of the new Tianhe space station, which is expected to become operational in 2022.
The United States Department of Defense on 5th May informed that it was tracking the Chinese Long March 5B-rocket which was out of control and was set to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The Chinese rocket was expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere around 8th May. The US Space Command was tracking the rocket’s trajectory amid the speculations about where the debris would make an impact. Pentagon’s US Space Command stated, “US Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its re-entry, which is expected around May 8.” They further added, “Until then, the 18th Space Control Squadron will be offering daily updates to the rocket body’s location on Space-track.org beginning May 4. USSPACECOM will provide additional information as it becomes available”.
The discarded Chinese rocket section was not guided into a controlled demolition by friction in Earth’s atmosphere which should happen in normal cases. After launching a rocket, its discarded booster stages are guided into a controlled demolition by friction in Earth’s atmosphere and the stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff and harmlessly fall into the ocean. But this didn’t happen with a 10-floor large rocket weighing 18 metric tons. It went into orbit along with the section of the under-construction space station that it was carrying. According to reports, China chose not to do this for its Long March rocket, leading China’s biggest rocket to crash back on Earth’s surface uncontrollably.
Basic details about the rocket stage and its trajectory were unknown because the Chinese government didn’t comment anything on re-entry. Phone calls made to the China National Space Administration weren’t answered on Wednesday, a holiday.
The USA hoped that the debris will land at a place where it won’t harm anyone. Despite concerns raised by space experts, Beijing 7th May dismissed threats posed by the rocket.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated that “Carrier vehicle Chang Zheng 5 successfully got the basic module of the orbital station into the orbit. China is carefully monitoring the rocket stage re-entry into the Earth atmosphere. As far as I know, the carrier vehicle is made from a special material, most debris will burn up on entry into the atmosphere. The risk for the planes and objects on the ground is very low.”
Several reports and experts claimed that despite the threat and speculations it was most likely to land in one of the oceans or an isolated area. The rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances about the re-entry fueled up fear and anxiety.
“We have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to shoot it down as we speak,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated on 6th May. Austin said, “We’re hopeful that it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone. Hopefully in the ocean, or someplace like that. I think this speaks to the fact that, for those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode.”
Providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, “After monitoring and analysis, at 10.24 (0224 GMT) on 9 May 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere.” It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during descent.
The US military’s Space Command tweeted stating, “US military’s Space Command can confirm Chinese Long March 5B entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 pm EDT on May 8. It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water.” Here is the tweet:
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) May 9, 2021
Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, tweeted that, “Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives.” Here’s the tweet:
Yes, we know that the TIP coords (lat 22.2, long 50.0) plot in Saudi Arabia. That was the last place that the @18SPCS computer system recorded it. Operators confirm that the rocket actually went into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives. We just report the data, folks!
— Space-Track (@SpaceTrackOrg) May 9, 2021
The US space agency NASA and some experts said China had behaved irresponsibly, as an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object risked damage and casualties. NASA and some other space agencies slammed Beijing for acting recklessly.
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” said NASA’s administrator, Bill Nelson, a former senator, and astronaut. He added that “It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
The Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid, or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand. He stated, “Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design.” McDowell further added, “It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this.” McDowell tweeted, “An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely, it appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”
Reacting to Nasa Administrator Senator Bill Nelson’s criticism, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying at a media briefing here said some countries, including America, are hyping up the issue. She stated, “To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low.” The Chinese space agency said most of the 30-meter (100-foot) long main stage of the Long March 5B rocket burned up above the Maldives.
“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said on Friday.
“China has been closely tracking its trajectory and issued statements on the re-entry situation in advance,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing. “There has been no report of harm on the ground. China also shares the results of re-entry predictions through international cooperation mechanisms,” she said. “Any concerns or misgivings in some media over this issue are unnecessary, there has never been any instance of falling debris causing damage.” said Hua. “So, the likelihood is extremely low. The issue should be left to professionals and it is unnecessary to hype up the issue to cause any panic,” she said.
Responding to a question on whether China has notified India and Maldives about the crash, Hua said, “Our competent authorities have made notifications on multiple occasions and we have international cooperation channels to share information on the final result of the space debris.”
Lashing out at the US, Hua said “American media used romantic rhetoric like “shooting stars lighting up the night sky'” about the debris of the US rockets in the past. “But when it comes to the Chinese side, it’s a completely different approach. We are willing to work with other countries, including the US, to strengthen cooperation in the use of outer space, but we also oppose double standards on this issue.”
In May, 2020, the same rocket crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, according to reports. The debris was reportedly the rocket’s core. It was 30.48 meters, weighing almost 18,000 kgs – making it the biggest rocket debris to fall in the Ocean since 1991. The rocket was launched on 5 May 2020 and spent days in orbit before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and crashing into the west coast of northwest Africa.
The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, into orbit on April 29. China had recently launched the main module of China’s first permanent space station into orbit. This space station will host astronauts for a long-term prospect. The launch is actually the first step towards launching 11 missions needed to complete the entire process by the end of year 2022.
China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.
Once the T-shaped Chinese Space Station is completed by late 2022, it is expected to weigh about 66 tons which is quite smaller than the International Space Station (ISS). China was the third country to independently send an astronaut to space after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
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