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Chinese Rocket Booster Renews Fear of Falling Space Debris

A massive Chinese rocket booster is headed for an uncontrolled fall through the atmosphere Friday.

A massive Chinese rocket booster is headed for an uncontrolled fall through the atmosphere on Friday, raising concerns that parts of the giant vehicle could crash into Earth.

It is the fourth time in two years that a large Chinese rocket has headed for an uncontrolled impact and has terrified many experts in the space industry. Both the US and Europe adhere to a rule that all space junk thrown over Earth must not exceed a one in 10,000 chance of causing injury on the ground, a threshold that experts at China’s rocket say is being exceeded.

“It’s a low-risk thing. But it’s a bigger risk than it needs to be,” Ted Muelhaupt, a consultant with Aerospace Corp., told reporters during a virtual media presentation.

The falling booster is the large nuclear stage of the Long March 5B rocket launched on October 31. The rocket had an experimental laboratory module called Mengtian, intended to dock with China’s Tiangong space station. Unlike other rockets, the Long March 5B’s core phase travels all the way into Earth orbit during launch and orbits Earth for a few days. Eventually its orbit expires and it descends to Earth.

While China does not violate any laws or international treaties, the National Space Administration is part of the 13-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, or IADC, which recently recommended that space debris entering the atmosphere should not exceed one in 10,000 odds. to injure or kill a person.

“China has always conducted activities that use space peacefully according to international laws and customs,” said a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry. “This type of rocket uses a special design technology, which causes most of the components to burn out in the process of entering the atmosphere, and the chances of it harming the Earth and aviation activities are extremely low.”

The spokesman said Chinese officials are monitoring the booster’s trail and have “disclosed information to international society with an open and transparent attitude.”

When smaller satellites and spacecraft fall out of orbit, they usually burn up in the atmosphere and pose little risk to the ground below.

But the core of the Long March 5B is about 33 meters long and weighs 22 tons. With an object of that size and mass, it’s likely that large chunks of rocket debris could survive and hit somewhere on Earth. Aerospace Corp. estimates that between 10% and 40% of the rocket could reach the Earth’s surface.

Most spacefaring nations and space companies take precautions when launching objects of this size into space, ensuring their vehicles are discharged over uninhabited areas – usually the ocean.

No such precautions appear to have been taken for China’s Long March 5B, which is why there is more fear around the world every time the missile is launched. Debris from a Long March 5B booster hit Ivory Coast in May 2020, and pieces of a Long March 5B missile were found in Indonesia after a July launch, although no one appeared to have been injured in either case.

China’s approach to its launch debris has been routinely condemned by space industry and government officials.

“Space-faring nations must minimize risks to people and property on Earth,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement in May 2021 after a March 5 billion uncontrolled return. “Clearly, China is not meeting responsible standards with regard to their space debris.”

Aerospace Corp. and others are calling on the international community to come together to establish an agreed set of standards, including the acceptable level of risk for the disposal of space debris.

“With our population that we have on the roads today, we need to have stoplights and road signs and speed limit rules,” said Lael Woods, a space traffic management expert at Aerospace Corp. “We believe that the same kind of rules and considerations [that] should be brought into the space domain.”

Aerospace Corp. notes that China would be liable if the missile caused significant damage to another state, thanks to the Liability Convention passed in 1972.

Satellite trackers with Aerospace Corp. and other institutions will continue to track the rocket’s path as it gets closer to Earth, refining their predictions for where it might land. Right now they see different paths that cover a large part of the world’s population.

While that may sound terrible, trackers will be able to better pinpoint the missile’s trajectory the closer it gets to reentry. Ultimately, the risk of a piece of debris from the rocket falling on a person is about six in 10 trillion, Aerospace Corp. estimates.

“You have a much better chance of winning the lottery tonight than being hit by this object,” consultant Muelhaupt said.

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