Space race

China discounts possibility of harm from falling rocket

A Long March 5B rocket carrying China's Tianhe space station core module lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on April 29, 2021. The upper stage of the rocket is expected to fall back to earth in the weekend of 8-9 May 2021.
A Long March 5B rocket carrying China's Tianhe space station core module lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on April 29, 2021. The upper stage of the rocket is expected to fall back to earth in the weekend of 8-9 May 2021. STR AFP/File

China says the upper stage of its Long March 5B rocket that launched the core module of its space station will mostly burn up on re-entry, posing little threat to people and property on the ground.

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Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbing said Chinese authorities will release information about the -re-entry of the rocket, expected over the weekend, in a “timely manner.” 

Wang said China “pays great attention to the re-entry of the upper stage of the rocket into the atmosphere." 

“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground," Wang said at a regularly scheduled briefing. 

Unknown location

The largest section of the rocket that launched the main module of China’s first permanent space station into orbit is expected to plunge back to Earth as early as Saturday at an unknown location.

Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

China’s National Space Administration has yet to say whether the main stage of the huge Long March 5B rocket is being controlled or will make an out-of-control descent. Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times said the stage’s “thin-skinned” aluminum-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people, rejecting western media to "hype the China space threat."

Cannot be pinpointed - yet

The U.S. Space Command, an entity under the Defense Department which was re-installed by President Donald Trump in 2019 after having been inactive for 17 years, expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on Saturday.

Where it will hit “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” Space Command said in a statement Tuesday.

According to Space Command, its Space Surveillance Network currently tracks more than 27,000 man-made objects in space, "the majority of which are in low-earth orbit. All debris can be potential threats to spaceflight safety and the space domain."

China's launch of its first Long March 5 rocket in November 2016 (pictured) was a leap forward for its ambitious space programme
China's launch of its first Long March 5 rocket in November 2016 (pictured) was a leap forward for its ambitious space programme AFP/File

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Wednesday briefing that the US Space Command was “aware of and tracking the location” of the Chinese rocket. 

The nonprofit Aerospace Corp. expects the debris to hit the Pacific near the Equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities. Its orbit covers a swath of the planet from New Zealand to Newfoundland.

The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29. China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.

Biggest space debris

The roughly 30-meter -long stage would be among the biggest piece of space debris to fall to Earth.

The 18-ton rocket that fell last May was the heaviest debris to fall uncontrolled since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by U.S. aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

(RFI WITH AP)

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