China’s Out-of-Control Rocket Booster Is Headed Back to Earth

On Monday, China launched another Long March 5B, the powerful rocket it needed to loft pieces of its Tiangong space station. This one sent the third and final piece of the outpost into orbit.

And once again, the rocket’s 23-ton center core stage will tumble back to Earth, uncontrolled, scattering large, heavy pieces of debris that will hit the surface somewhere.

“Here we go again,” Ted Muelhaupt, a consultant for the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit group largely financed by the U.S. government that performs research and analysis, said in a news conference on Wednesday.

The Long March 5B booster is not the only human-made object, or even the largest, to fall from space. And pieces of spacecraft from other countries, including the United States, have also fallen back to Earth recently — including a small piece of a SpaceX vehicle that turned up on an Australian sheep farm in August.

But Dr. Muelhaupt and other experts emphasize that such incidents differ from China’s use of the Long March 5B rocket.

“The thing I want to point out about this is that we, the world, don’t deliberately launch things this big intending them to fall wherever,” he said. “We haven’t done that for 50 years.”

Where exactly, no one knows — yet. But we’ll know within a few hours, because it is now dropping quickly back into the atmosphere.

On Friday evening, the Aerospace Corporation predicted that re-entry would occur at 7:20 a.m. Eastern time. If that is accurate, debris will fall into the southern Pacific Ocean. However, as the booster is speeding around the globe at 17,500 miles per hour, a difference of even a few minutes would shift the re-entry by hundreds of miles.

It depends on where you live.

Because of the orientation of the orbit, if you live somewhere like Chicago or somewhere farther north — that includes almost all of Europe and all of Russia — the odds of being hit by this falling rocket are zero. The last few orbits also completely miss Asia and South America. Everyone on those two continents is definitely safe.

For people elsewhere, the chances of being hit are minuscule, although not quite zero.

“You’ve got far better odds of winning the lottery” than of being hit by part of the Chinese rocket, Dr. Muelhaupt said. “The risk to an individual is six per 10 trillion. That’s a really small number.” (That is, if 10 trillion Chinese Long March 5B rocket boosters fell out of the sky, six of them would hit you personally.)

He puts the odds that all of the nearly eight billion people on Earth will survive unscathed at 99.5 percent.

But the 0.5 percent chance that someone will be hurt is “high enough that the world has to watch and prepare and take precautionary steps, and that has a cost, which is unnecessary,” Dr. Muelhaupt said.

The Long March 5B consists of a large center booster and four smaller side boosters. The side boosters drop off shortly after launch, crashing harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean. But, by design, the core booster stage goes all the way to orbit before deploying its payload.

For this mission, the rocket carried Mengtian, a science laboratory module, for the Chinese space station, Tiangong.

Mengtian docked to China’s orbital outpost on Tuesday. Tiangong, designed to last at least 10 years, is not as big as the International Space Station — it is more comparable in size to the Russian Mir space station that orbited from 1986 to 2001. But it will establish a more permanent base in space than China’s earlier space stations, and more than 1,000 scientific experiments are planned for it in the years to come.

The Chinese rocket engineers who designed the Long March 5B did not include any way to guide the spent core booster to an empty part of an ocean.

Instead, the booster gradually falls as it rubs against the wisps of the upper atmosphere. How fast it falls depends on the air density. That varies, because the Earth’s atmosphere puffs outward when the sun is active, spewing out more charged particles, and contracts when the sun is quieter.

Two of the three previous launches of the Long March 5B — one of the most powerful rockets in operation today — ended with large chunks of metal landing near populated areas. Although no one has been injured, the proximity illustrated the dangers.

For the first launch of the rocket, in 2020, the booster made an uncontrolled re-entry over West Africa, with some debris landing on a village in Ivory Coast. After the third launch, in July, the uncontrolled re-entry occurred over Southeast Asia, with pieces landing in Malaysia.

“Again, big chunks of metal have come down near where people are,” Dr. Muelhaupt said.

He said there was no indication that China had made any of the significant modifications to the rocket design that would be needed for a controlled re-entry.

China has at least one more Long March 5B launch planned, for next year, to put in orbit a space telescope, Xuntian, that would rival NASA’s Hubble space telescope.

And it is probable that debris from American rockets and spacecraft will turn up on land again, too, like the SpaceX vehicle part found in Australia.

But there is little need to worry about the upcoming flight of NASA’s massive moon rocket, the Space Launch System, the agency says. The S.L.S., the biggest rocket to fly since the Saturn V used for the Apollo missions, is scheduled to make its first flight later this month. Its center core stage travels almost all the way to orbit, but NASA officials said on Thursday that its trajectory was designed to re-enter not long after launch in a specific unpopulated area.

“It’s in an area of the ocean where it won’t affect anyone,” said James Free, the associate administrator for exploration systems at NASA.

Source link