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Massive, Out of Control Long March 5B Stage Reenters Over the Pacific Ocean

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
November 4, 2022
Long March 5B launches the Mengtian space station module on Oct. 31, 2022. (Credit: CNSA)
  • No reports of injuries or damage from debris
  • NASA administrator condemns Chinese actions as dangerous, irresponsible
  • Fourth such incident since May 2020

U.S. Space Command reports that China’s latest attempt to play Russian roulette with the world using a massive, 30-meter long rocket stage weighing about 21.5 metric tons (23.8 tons) ended with an apparently safe reentry over the south-central Pacific Ocean on Friday.

There were no reports of injuries or property damage from debris that reached the ocean. Media reports say that Spain was forced to temporarily close part of its airspace as a precaution.

The Long March 5B core stage was used to launch the Mengtian science module to the Tiangong space station on Monday. Unlike other rocket stages that are deorbited over the ocean, the core stage entered a low orbit where it tumbled out of control for days until atmospheric drag brought it down.

Orbital path of China’s Long March 5B. (Credit: The Aerospace Corporation)

The stage is too large to completely burn up in the atmosphere. That means dangerous debris will reach Earth’s surface.

The Aerospace Corporation, which tracked the stage during its flight, published a map showing that it overflew a good portion of the planet’s population. Areas that could have been impacted included: all of Africa, Australia, India and the Middle East; all but the southern tip of South America; most of the continental United States and China; and part of southern Europe.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson strongly condemned China’s refusal to deorbit the stage and its lack of cooperation in a statement.

Once again, the People’s Republic of China is taking unnecessary risks with the uncontrolled rocket stage reentry of a Long March 5B rocket stage. They did not share specific trajectory information which is needed to predict landing zones and reduce risk. This is the PRC’s fourth uncontrolled reentry since May 2020, and each of these reentries have been the largest in the last 30 years. It is critical that all spacefaring nations are responsible and transparent in their space activities and follow best practices, especially, for the uncontrolled reentry of a large rocket body debris — debris that could very well result in major damage or loss of life.

Three previous reentries of Long March 5B stages have not resulted in any reported injuries or loss of life. Nor have protests by NASA and other space agencies caused any changes in China’s launch practices.

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