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China Successfully Launches Space Module, But Debris From Long March Rocket Is Now Barreling Towards Earth

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: July 26, 2022
The rocket carrying China’s second module for its Tiangong space station lifts off from the Wenchang space center in southern China on July 24, 2022. (Image: CNS/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s space agency has successfully launched its Long March 5B rocket, delivering the 22-ton Wentian laboratory module to its fledgling space station. 

The rocket, with the module mounted on its back, blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan at 2:22 p.m. local time on Sunday, June 24. It arrived at the country’s Tiangong space station approximately 13 hours later, according to state-run outlet China Daily.

Similar to previous launches, however, the rocket’s core stage remained in orbit and is now set to perform an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth. The uncontrolled descent marks the third time that China has been criticized for not properly handling space debris from its rocket stage — resulting in large metal fragments crashing back down Earth. 

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“It’s a 20-plus-ton metal object. Although it will break up as it enters the atmosphere, numerous pieces — some of them quite large — will reach the surface,” Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia told CNN. 

Although space debris poses an “extremely minimal risk” to humans, according to Byers, it is possible that larger parts from the rocket could cause damage if they break apart into smaller pieces and land in populated regions.

“This risk is entirely avoidable since technologies and mission designs now exist that can provide controlled reentries (usually into remote areas of oceans) instead of uncontrolled and therefore entirely random ones,” he told the news outlet in an emailed statement. 

Space junk

Butu in addition to debris that falls to Earth, there is also the growing problem of orbiting manmade garbage that poses risks to satellites and spacecraft. 

According to NASA, there are approximately 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk” that are being tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. However, not all the pieces can be monitored continuously. 

NASA added that “China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, which used a missile to destroy an old weather satellite, added more than 3,500 pieces of large, trackable debris and many more smaller debris to the problem.”

“It’s not like LEO (low Earth orbit) stuff where the traffic is high so junk is a danger to other spacecraft. But you’d think it would be a good idea to know where we have dumped things,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Gizmodo on July 25. 

However, he added that, “Unfortunately we can’t predict when or where [the debris will land],” but such a large rocket stage should not be left in orbit to make an uncontrolled re-entry; the risk to the public is not huge, but it is larger than I am comfortable with.”

In May 2020, debris from an uncontrollable Chinese rocket fell onto an inhabited area along the west coast of Africa, while another rocket launched in April 2021 crashed into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.