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Chinese rocket’s uncontrolled descent shows PRC failing to meet ‘responsible standards’

Chinese rocket’s uncontrolled descent shows PRC failing to meet ‘responsible standards’


The out-of-control fall to Earth of chunks of a massive Chinese rocket — the second such disturbing descent in just a year — is evidence that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is ignoring international safety norms, according to scientists and space agencies.

Debris from the nearly 60-meter-tall Long March 5B reportedly plunged into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives on May 9, 2021, 10 days after the unmanned spacecraft, pictured, launched from Hainan province, carrying the core capsule of the PRC’s planned space station. However, experts said the China National Space Administration did not issue timing or trajectory projections until just before the remnants reentered Earth’s atmosphere. Other nations typically make such announcements up to days in advance.

“That left foreign observers scrambling to map the discarded heavy stage of the Long March 5B and guesstimate its final destination on Earth,” Richard de Grijs, an astrophysicist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, told Reuters. “This caused anxiety to a large number of nations in the potential impact area.”

The head of the United States’ space agency said the PRC failed to meet “responsible standards” in dealing with debris.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of reentries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former U.S. astronaut, said in a May 8 statement. “It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”

The PRC is a repeat offender: In May 2020, following another launch of the Long March 5B, pieces of the rocket’s core stage fell on villages in the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire. Homes and businesses were damaged, although no one was injured, according to Forbes.

“In the past year, two of China’s Long March 5B rocket stages have not fully burned up on reentry, so that is a noticeable deviation from the norm,” de Grijs said.

Guidelines issued by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space call on nations to enact mitigation measures for space debris, including to guard against “the risk of damage on the ground, if debris survives Earth’s atmospheric reentry.”

“The prompt implementation of appropriate debris mitigation measures is therefore considered a prudent and necessary step towards preserving the outer space environment for future generations,” according to the 2010 guidelines.

Experts said the Long March 5B’s single core stage, which is estimated to be 33 meters tall and to weigh 21,000 kilograms, was discarded only after the rocket’s payload reached orbit. That’s unlike most rockets, which have multiple stages that are discarded earlier in flight, allowing for better landing site projections.

“It seems that China’s rocket design has prioritized power above all else — that is, enough power to lift heavy payloads to orbit,” de Grijs said.

Meanwhile, other nations are going even further in mitigating space debris. Days before the latest incident involving a Chinese rocket, the U.S. company SpaceX reached a milestone with the first successful controlled landing of its prototype launch vehicle. The reusable, heavy-lift Starship reached an altitude of 10 kilometers before touching down safely on its landing pad in Texas, the company announced.

In partnership with NASA, SpaceX plans to use the next-generation, 120-meter-tall Starship to transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the moon, The New York Times newspaper reported.

Chinese officials contended that projections for the Long March 5B’s reentry were shared through “international cooperation mechanisms,” Reuters reported. In a two-sentence statement, China’s space agency said that “the vast majority of the device burned up during the reentry” and provided latitude and longitude coordinates for “a sea area” where it claimed the debris landed.

Space hardware should “burn up entirely” while falling through Earth’s atmosphere, and uncontrolled reentries should have a less than 1 in 10,000 chance of causing injuries, according to the European Space Agency.

“In practice some pieces can make it all the way down to Earth — some of them big enough to do serious damage,” the agency noted in April 2021. “Modern space debris regulations demand that such incidents should not happen.”

Most nations design their spacecraft to prevent uncontrolled reentries, according to Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. China’s decision to do otherwise demonstrates not a lack of knowledge or technology, but rather apathy toward the fate of rocket debris, he told CBS News. “I would think it was lack of concern,” McDowell said.