The body of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket is expected to plunge back down to Earth on another round of uncontrolled reentry.
And this is not the first time the spacecraft’s body has littered our planet. Tiangong space station’s final module was launched on Monday (October 31) on a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket. This has been the third time in the last two years and will be the final installment to the Chinese space station.
China failed to perform a controlled deorbit with the previous two launches, and experts believe that this third launch could follow the same pattern as well. The recently launched module seemed to lack the hardware to make a controlled reentry and direct itself toward a splashdown in the ocean. The location of the space junk is yet to be determined.
The Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket transported Mengtian, the final module of the Tiangong space station. Weighing 23-ton, it is approximately the size of a 10-story building and could cause significant risks to human lives and property if it lands on a populated region. Its predecessors crashed into the Indian Ocean on May 8, 2021, and another breaking up over Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines on July 30, 2022. In 2020, space debris from another Long March 5B mission also ended up on western Africa.
The rogue reentry of the Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket is expected to happen during a 28-hour window between late Friday (November 4) and Saturday, according to Aerospace Corporation, a company that tracks reentries from space. The debris field left by a rocket with such as heavy mass as the Long March 5B is bound to spread out its debris in fragments strewn over a large distance.
While there is a fear of space junk falling in densely populated areas, the human population is distributed in such a way that even if the junk were to fall on land, it might probably find itself in a remote area. Nevertheless, uncontrolled reentry is still worrisome and people are increasingly voicing the need for international laws to curb the issue. The Executive Director for The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS), Marlon Sorge, states that there are no defined laws that dictate the manner of reentry. And as such, “There isn’t really a direct legal way to control what’s going on on an international level”, according to Sorge.
Despite the chances of getting hit by space junk is extremely low, it does not mean that it will never happen. We can never be too careful. As Muelhaupt puts it, “you do it often enough, you do it long enough, you’re going to get lucky and bring it down in the middle of a city park.” We must curb the problem to be one that is manageable to create a safe and sustainable environment not just on Earth but in space as well.