Mission managers didn’t screw anything up; this end-of-life scenario is built into the Long March 5B’s design, to the consternation of exploration advocates and much of the broader spaceflight community. This disposal strategy is reckless, critics say, given that the big rocket doesn’t burn up completely upon reentry.
Indeed, 5.5 tons to 9.9 tons (5 to 9 metric tons) of the Long March 5B likely survived all the way to the ground today, experts with The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies have estimated. And it’s possible that falling rocket chunks caused some injuries or infrastructure damage today, given where the Long March 5B reentered. One observer appeared to capture the rocket’s breakup from Kuching, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, for example, posting video of the dramatic event on Twitter. “The video from Kuching implies it was high in the atmosphere at that time — any debris would land hundreds of km further along track, near Sibu, Bintulu or even Brunei,” astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said via Twitter today. It’s “unlikely but not impossible” that one or more chunks hit a population center, he added in another tweet….
“What really should have happened is, there should have been some fuel left on board for this to be a controlled reentry,” Darren McKnight, a senior technical fellow at the California-based tracking company LeoLabs, said Thursday (July 28) during a Long March 5B reentry discussion that The Aerospace Corporation livestreamed on Twitter. “That would be the responsible thing to do….”
This was the third uncontrolled fall for a Long March 5B core stage to date.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also released a critical statement today pointing out that China “did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth.”
All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.
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