| 28 July 2022
The 23-ton Long March 5B rocket carries the Wentian Laboratory unit.
The 23-ton Long March 5B rocket carries the Wentian Laboratory unit. (Photo: CSS)
Fragment of a Chinese missile falls back to Earth in an uncontrolled landing – and scientists don’t know where it will land. The wreckage of the massive craft may reach our planet as early as next week, according to the US Space Command, which is tracking its path.
The 23-ton Long March 5B rocket carrying the Wentian Laboratory module took off from Hainan Island on Sunday and successfully docked at China’s Tiangong orbital site on Monday.
After detaching from the station, the rocket began to orbit the Earth in an irregular trajectory as it slowly lost altitude. This makes any prediction about where it will return to the atmosphere or where it will land on the planet almost impossible. This is the third time that the Chinese space agency has allowed a fatal, uncontrollable landing.
Even if the rocket fell from the sky largely intact, there is a good chance that it will land in the ocean, which covers 70% of the Earth’s surface. Scientists will only have an accurate idea of where the thruster will land a few hours after it re-enters.
“Unfortunately we cannot predict when or where [o impacto]said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks the object.
“Such a large rocket stage should not be left in orbit for an uncontrolled return; the danger to the public is not great, but greater than I feel comfortable with.”
This station is called Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), but also known by the acronym CSS (Chinese Space Station), and the space station is supposed to be fully operational by the end of the year. After Wentian this weekend, the three astronauts on the Shenzhou-14 mission, who are currently on the space station, will receive another lab unit, Mengtian, initially during October. The station will then have its final “T” shape. Its size would be similar to the former Soviet-Russian space station Mir. Their life expectancy will be at least 10 years.
Launches by NASA, SpaceX, and Roscosmos ignore the upper stages of the rockets using controlled reentries. The trash is directed into Earth’s atmosphere to ensure it disintegrates into a remote, uninhabited area of the Pacific Ocean.
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