Chinese rocket booster makes an uncontrolled return from space

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The carbonized remains of a The booster rocket returned to Earth without control on Friday morning, an event denounced in the West as an irresponsibly risky move by China’s National Space Administration.

The rocket re-entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean shortly after 6 a.m. ET, according to the US Space Commandwhich is part of the Department of Defense.

“Once again, the People’s Republic of China is taking unnecessary risks with the uncontrolled re-entry of the rocket stage of its Long March 5B rocket stage. They did not share specific trajectory information needed to predict the areas of landing and reduce risk,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement released Friday morning.

“It is critical that all spacefaring nations be accountable and transparent in their space activities and follow established best practices, particularly for the uncontrolled re-entry of large rocket body debris, debris that could very well cause significant damage or loss of life”.

This dangerous situation marked the fourth uncontrolled reentry of a Long March 5B rocket since the Chinese space agency began flying it two years ago, as the vehicle was designed without the necessary equipment to steer towards a safe landing. This fact has repeatedly sparked controversy and has been criticized by space policy experts who say it poses an unnecessary risk.

“I want to point out that the lower the acceptable risk, the more expensive it is to design for that risk. But it’s something that has to be done,” said Dr. Lael Woods, space traffic management expert at the Space Security Institute, during a news conference hosted by The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research center.

“Imagine the roads are completely empty today,” he continued. “There’s not really a lot of need to have rules or traffic lights and so forth. But absolutely, with our population that we have on the roads today, we need to have traffic lights and traffic signals and rules.”

The rocket’s thruster is 108 feet (33 meters) from tip to tip, noted Ted Muelhaupt, a space traffic expert and consultant to the Aerospace Corporation. Much of the hardware will burn up during the fiery re-entry process as the 22-metric-ton rocket plunges back into Earth’s thick atmosphere, but 10 to 40 percent is expected to survive. That’s the amount of debris that can get back into the atmosphere and pose a threat, Muelhaupt said.

A Long March 5B rocket has not yet posed a threat to people. However, remains have been found on the ground. Muelhaupt noted that after one of the boosters crashed in 2022, debris was found in Malaysia and the Philippines.

That specific rocket booster was used on an Oct. 31 mission that carried another piece of China’s new space station, called Tiangong, into orbit.

Most rockets flying today are built with a means to ensure that the rocket propellants are safely discarded. Some companies say the rockets are headed for the ocean. American rocket company SpaceX even manages to guide its first-stage rocket boosters, the biggest, bottom part of a rocket that provides the initial thrust for liftoff, to a controlled landing and timely so that they can be renewed and used again.

Muelhaupt noted, however, that equipping a rocket to perform such a maneuver is far from trivial. It costs development time and money. The extra gear also adds mass, and when it comes to trying to escape the crush of gravity and put precious cargo into space, every pound counts.

Muelhaupt added that he doesn’t foresee China trying to redesign its rocket to add safer landing capabilities, as making that kind of adjustment is not trivial.

“It can be very difficult to bring together an entire global community, or even segments of the global community to agree on what those rules should be and for rules like acceptable risk,” Woods said. “But while it is indeed difficult, we believe that establishing an international consensus on these norms of behavior involving space is absolutely a worthy and important endeavor.”

In a tweet on Friday, the US Space Command referred questions about the rocket’s re-entry to China’s government, which did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

However, at a briefing with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), spokesman Zhao Lijian referred questions to the department in charge of the rocket booster.

“As a matter of principle, I would like to emphasize that China has always carried out activities for the peaceful use of outer space in accordance with international law and international practice, and it is an internationally accepted practice that the upper stages of the rockets are reused. enter the atmosphere,” Zhao said. “The Chinese authorities have been closely monitoring the relevant orbital parameters of the rocket debris. We will disseminate information to the international community in an open and transparent manner and in a timely manner.”

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