Another out-of-control Chinese rocket is causing concern – a year after one of Beijing’s spacecraft dumped debris on the Indian Ocean.
Experts fear that part of a 21-tonne Long March 5B rocket, which was launched into space on Sunday, could completely burn up when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
It would then dive to the surface in an uncertain location and at high speed.
Although the chances of debris hitting an inhabited area are very low, many experts believe China is taking an unnecessary risk.
The country’s latest rocket lifted off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island province of Hainan over the weekend.
It was carrying a new solar-powered laboratory, the Wentian Experiment Module, to add to China’s growing Tiangong space station.
However, experts fear parts of the rocket’s core stage could fall to Earth – during a rehearsal of China’s launch last May, which saw debris strewn across the Indian Ocean.
At the time, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China of “failing to maintain responsible standards for their space debris,” including minimizing risk during re-entry and being transparent about operations.
Another out-of-control Chinese rocket sparks concern – a year after one of Beijing’s spacecraft dumped debris on the Indian Ocean
Experts fear that debris from a 21-tonne Long March 5B rocket, which was launched into space on Sunday (pictured), will burn up completely when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere
WHAT IS TIANGONG?
The Chinese space station is called ‘Tiangong‘, meaning ‘Heavenly Palace’.
Tiangong is made up of several different modules that launch one by one.
In April 2021, the basic module, called ‘Tianhe‘, Was launched. The first crew arrived in Tianhe two months later.
In July 2022, Wentiana smaller module where research experiments will take place, attached to Tianhe.
In October 2022, a second research laboratory module, Mengtian, will also attach to Tianhe. When this is done, the Tiangong space station will be finished.
Two other spacecraft that can dock at the station – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – carry crew and freight respectively, and are not considered part of the station itself.
China also plans to launch Xuntiana space telescope that would co-orbit with the space station in 2024.
The rocket’s first stage was dropped during launch and will continue to loop the Earth over the next few days as it gradually descends to the surface.
Experts say its flight path is difficult to predict due to fluctuations in the atmosphere caused by changes in solar activity.
Jonathan McDowell, an experienced tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said US Space Command data shows the rocket’s first stage floats on its own.
“The inert core stage remains in orbit and has not been actively desorbed,” he tweeted.
The problem with Chinese rockets is rooted in the risky design of the country’s launch process.
Usually, abandoned rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere shortly after liftoff, normally above water, and do not enter orbit.
However, the Long March 5B rocket does.
China has previously dismissed accusations of irresponsibility, with China’s foreign ministry saying the likelihood of damage to anything or anyone on the ground is “extremely low”.
Many scientists agree with China that the chances of debris causing serious damage are minimal, although others believe launch designs like the Long March 5B are an unnecessary risk.
Last May, one of the country’s Long March rockets shattered during its re-entry over the Indian Ocean, north of the Maldives, sparking fears that it could strike a populated area on land.
It eventually fell into the ocean, but Nelson still released a statement in strong terms which read: ‘Space nations should minimize the risks to people and property on Earth from space object re-entries and maximize transparency regarding these operations.
“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding its space debris.”
In 2020, pieces of the first Long March 5B fell on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings but causing no injuries.
The Tiangong space station, currently under construction, is seen in this artistic rendering
Wenchang Space Launch Center is a rocket launch site on Hainan Island, China
Wentian, a research laboratory dedicated to scientific and biological experiments, has already docked with the main body of the space station, called Tianhe.
It is expected to be followed by a second research lab module, Mengtian, which is expected to launch in October this year.
When Mengtian attaches to the rest of Tiangong, construction of the space station will finally be complete, although Beijing also plans to launch Xuntian, a space telescope that would co-orbit with the space station, in 2024.
Tiangong (meaning “heavenly palace”) will rival the aging International Space Station (ISS), which is operated by space agencies from the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe.
It will comprise three modules, although two other spacecraft – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – which carry crew and cargo respectively, can also dock at the station.
When completed, the Tiangong space station will weigh some 66 tonnes, much smaller than the ISS, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tonnes.
It should have a lifespan of at least 10 years.
CHINA steps up plans to become space superpower with missions to Mars and Moon
Chinese space agency officials are striving to become a space superpower alongside the United States and Russia.
They’ve already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the moon – sharing photos of the part of our nearest neighbor we rarely see on the Chang’e-4 mission.
In November 2020, they sent the Chang’e-5 space probe to the Moon to collect and return the first lunar soil samples in 45 years.
This was done in conjunction with the European Space Agency which provided tracking information for the Chinese spacecraft.
Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the moon’s south pole and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.
Chang’e-7 will study the earth’s surface, composition and space environment in a global mission, according to China’s space authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on surface engineering analysis.
China is also reportedly working on building a moon base using 3D printing technology and sending a future crewed mission to the surface.
Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it works to verify technology for the project.
The CNSA is also building a space station in orbit around the Earth where Chinese astronauts will conduct scientific experiments, similar to the crew of the International Space Station.
The agency also launched a mission to Mars in the summer of 2020 and landed a rover on the Red Planet in May 2021.
China is also reportedly working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, which would send energy back to Earth and become the largest man-made object in orbit.
They also have a number of ambitious space science projects, including satellites to search for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecraft to monitor climate change.