A Long March 5B rocket with the core module of the Chinese Tianhe space station will be launched on April 29, 2021 from …  Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern Chinese province of Hainan. – China OUT (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images)
Last week, China celebrated the successful launch of the first module for its new space station. But while the Tianhe module is set to begin a long sojourn in orbit, the massive Long March 5B rocket (also known as the CZ-5B) that sent it there is expected to be awaiting an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, which Seeing parts of the booster could act on the surface.
Typically, boosters that large can be controlled to land in a safe area, usually in remote sections of the ocean. However, it appears that the core booster used to lift Tianhe did not cause the deorbit burn that would have allowed controlled and predictable re-entry.
Instead, the 21 ton rocket burned most of its fuel, to put their payload into orbit and is now in orbit itself. So either there isn’t enough fuel to burn in orbit that would allow safe reentry, or that was never part of the plan from the start.
« This wasn’t an accident, it was a poor rocket design « explains the Harvard astronomer and expert on everything to do with the orbital, Jonathan McDowell on Twitter. « The fact that the massive core stage remains in orbit is the design of this rocket, and that is the easy (but negligent) way to do it. »
Statements by Chinese state space officials refer to recent improvements to the Long March 5B with no particular reference to deorbit burning ability.
Now Earth’s gravity is pulling on the spent rocket and pulling it down as it lashes around our planet above us.
The latest forecast from Aerospace Corporation is that the CZ-5B missile body will re-enter at some point in a 56-hour window that begins around 8:30 p.m. EDT on Friday and basically covers the entire weekend.
Possible places where the missile could re-penetrate and possibly even surface include significant parts of North America, Africa, the Middle East and Australia, as well as a few locations in southern Europe and parts of South America.
This rocket is one of the largest pieces of space debris to have ever experienced an uncontrolled reentry, but not as massive as the 78 ton Skylab that was known to crash back to Earth in 1979.
Another Chinese space station, Tiangong- 1, made an uncontrolled re-entry that attracted much horrified attention in 2018. This object was only about 8 tons and hit the ocean. This CZ-5B is also a few tons more massive than another Chinese missile that was re-deployed in 2020.
Keep an eye on the skies and check for more updates, both here and via my Twitter feed @EricCMack. </ I've covered science, technology, the environment, and politics for outlets like CNET, PC World, BYTE, Wired, AOL, and NPR. I've written e-books on Android and Alaska.
I’ve covered science, technology, the environment, and politics for outlets like CNET, PC World, BYTE, Wired, AOL, and NPR. I’ve written e-books on Android and Alaska.
I started reporting on Silicon Valley for the now-defunct Business 2.0 Magazine in 2000, but when the dot-com bubble burst I was on a public radio station in the Alaskan bush for three years.
After returning to my under forty-eight years, I freelanced on national public service radio programs in politics, energy, and the environment, and spent time as an online editor for AOL and Comcast.
For the past ten years I’ve focused back on the world of technology.