By: April Carson
China has once again decided to allow a large rocket stage to fall back to Earth on its own.
The country's third refusal to control the first stage of the Long March 5B rocket's disposal, once again puts China under scrutiny from space debris trackers after two similar uncontrolled crashes in 2020 and 2021.
According to veteran tracker John Logsdon, the 21-ton stage is drifting on its own in space according to American Space Command orbital data.
"It's now an uncontrolled reentry. The Chinese have a lot of experience with this," said Logsdon, a space policy expert who founded the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"The inert ... core stage remains in orbit and was not actively deorbited," McDowell tweeted. "In comparison to U.S. launch providers, Americans do a far better job of upper stage disposal, while China on average does a worse job," he added.
The U.S. military has not yet declared an emergency on Twitter through Space Command or the 18th Space Defense Squadron, which monitors re-entries. Nor has Aerospace Corporation tweeted about it on social media, as they usually do with news relating to huge man-made re-entry vehicles.
The danger of dying from a rocket stage fall is practically nil in general, but the Long March 5B rocket body is rather huge. It's about 30 meters (100 feet) long and 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter. It's also traveling incredibly fast, as it re-enters the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.
On Sunday, July 24 at 2:25 a.m. EDT (0625 GMT or 2:25 p.m. Beijing time), China launched the Wentian space station module, which was scheduled to connect with the Tiangong space station successfully. As planned, Wentian safely docked with the Tiangong space station.
According to a recent study published in Nature Astronomy, allowing huge stages to fall uncontrollably to Earth causes "unnecessary risk," and that China is not alone in employing this technique despite international rules for reducing space debris danger.
Most of the world's major space agencies have rules in place to handle the danger of rocket stages, although the United States and most other global organizations regulate it. The United States government, for example, has an Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices regulation.
The text notes that the procedures call for a risk of fatality from a re-entering rocket to be below 1 in 10,000, but this is not always adhered to. The Air Force dismissed the criteria for 37 of its 66 launches between 2011 and 2018 "on the grounds that it would be too pricey to replace non-compliant parts."
The odds of being struck by space debris are actually quite low. There have only been a handful of reported cases in which people have been hit by space junk, and none of them have resulted in serious injuries.
Still, the threat of space debris is taken very seriously by those who work in the industry. As more and more objects are sent into orbit, the chances of a collision increase. That's why there are strict guidelines about how to dispose of space junk so that it doesn't pose a threat to future missions.
Between 2008 and 2018, NASA was exempt from these casualty standards seven times, including a 2015 Atlas V mission with a 1% chance of losing an astronaut. The authors noted that it's crucial to recall this as both the Biden administration and NASA have condemned China's actions in the past.
"There is no global agreement on an acceptable level of risk, and other spacefaring nations — including the United States — face comparable decisions about uncontrolled reentries," the authors wrote. Michael Byers, a Canadian political scientist at UBC, was the study's lead author.
The authors found that since most uncontrolled rocket bodies launch near the equator, cities in the Global South appear to be at a higher risk. The researchers claim that latitudes including Jakarta (Indonesia), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Mexico City, Bogotá (Columbia) and Lagos (Nigeria) have three times the danger of a re-entering rocket body than Washington, D.C., New York, Beijing and Moscow.
The report's authors conclude that national governments with "overwhelmingly high hazards" from uncontrolled rocket bodies should propose negotiations, non-binding measures or treaties "to establish actual consequences for non-compliance and thus minimize everyone's safety risks."
However, China works mostly independently in space, and NASA is not allowed to carry out any bilateral operations with China or Chinese-owned businesses, according to the organization. The country has also defended its unsupervised reentry practice in the past, claiming that the danger of problems "causing damage on the ground is quite low."
While the country's space ambitions have been praised by some, others have voiced concerns about China's "aggressive" tactics. In March, a Chinese Long March 5B rocket body fell back to Earth, crashing into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.
The U.S. Space Command tracked the rocket body as it spun uncontrolled through the atmosphere, and estimated that it would hit somewhere between 41.5 degrees north latitude and 41.5 degrees south latitude — a vast area that includes populated areas on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.
The research was conducted by academics at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and published in the journal Science China Earth Sciences.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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