by Douglas Messier
In a statement on Friday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the uncontrolled reentry of the core stage from the recently launched Chinese Long March 5 could have fallen on U.S. cities before reentering over the Atlantic Ocean and west Africa.
“The empty core stage of the Long March 5B, weighing nearly 20 tons, was in an uncontrolled freefall along a path that carried it over Los Angeles and other populated areas. As a matter of fact, had this spent rocket stage, which is the largest uncontrolled object to fall from low-Earth orbit in almost 30 years, reentered earlier, it could have hit New York. Two villages in Cote d’Ivoire have reported finding what they believe to be debris from the fallen rocket.
The Long March 5B first stage reentered the Earth’s atmosphere on May 11, six days after the rocket made its maiden flight from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. The rocket launched a prototype of a new Chinese crewed vehicle, which landed safely on May 8 after an automated flight.
The first stages of most launch vehicles burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere soon after burnout and separation from their second stages. Most SpaceX Falcon 9 first stages land back on Earth or an offshore drone ship for reuse.
Long March 5B doesn’t have a second stage. The core stage has four strap-on boosters that drop off after their fuel is expended. On this flight, the core stage continued on and entered orbit without a controlled reentry.
China plans to use Long March 5B to begin launching modules for the nation’s first permanent space station next year. The booster will also be used to launch other large orbital payloads.
Bridenstine said the dangerous, uncontrolled reentry was a good reason for nations to adopt the Artemis Accords, a set of principles that will govern the NASA-led partnership to explore the moon. The accords include provisions for controlling orbital debris.
“I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords. It’s vital for the U.S. to lead and establish norms of behavior against such irresponsible activities. Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger,” he said.