Massive Chinese rocket falls back to Earth, largest in decades

14 Mai, 2020, 16:08 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • A Long March 5B rocket lifts off from the Wenchang launch site on China's southern Hainan Island

The launch proceeded normally and represented another success for China as it seeks to build a robust human spaceflight program. In the coming years, this rocket will launch components of a modular space station.

China has previously shown a disregard for debris from its rocket launches, however.

The only larger pieces were Skylab in 1979, Skylab's rocket stage in 1975 and Soviet Union's Salyut 7 space station in 1991.

The Long March 5B rocket reached an orbit between 41.1 degrees north and south latitude.

The Long March 5B rocket in question was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center carrying an unmanned prototype spacecraft. Because the perigee of this orbit was only about 160km above the planet, the core stage was slowly drawn back toward the planet as it interacted with the planet's upper atmosphere.

The speed at which the debris - the fourth-largest to return to Earth uncontrolled - was travelling made it hard for scientists to guess where the debris would ultimately crash.

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A prominent Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracks objects in orbit, tweeted, "It is the most massive object to make an uncontrolled reentry since the 39-tonne Salyut-7 in 1991".

"For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive reentry and crash to Earth", McDowell told CNN. "I would be a bit surprised if anything as big as 1 metric ton did".

The 18th Space Control Squadron, a unit of the U.S. Air Force, confirmed the 30 metre-long core stage's descent on May 11 and scientists expected that parts of the stage would burn up on re-entry. At this point, the core stage would have been at an altitude of 80km and rapidly descending toward Earth.

Chunks of the massive Chinese rocket that recently took an uncontrolled plunge back into the Earth's atmosphere narrowly missed hitting New York City, according to a report. If it had returned to the atmosphere just a little earlier, perhaps 15 to 20 minutes, the debris from the rocket could have rained down in the largest metropolitan area in the United States.

While there is now no concrete evidence that the metal object found in Mahounou came from the rocket, locals reported hearing loud noises and flashes, and seeing falling debris around the same time that the rocket would have passed overhead, according to local media. It frequently launches rockets from pads surrounded by land. This has caused the rubble of the first and second stages to fall on the country's villages. It was the first launch of the newly developed heavy-lift launch system, which is known as Long March-5B or CZ-5B. Certainly this will be discouraged, at the very least, by other nations.

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