Its a kind of donkey prick, but with a piece of space debris of about 21 tons and the earth as a game board. Nobody knows exactly when or where part of the 30-metre high Chinese rocket launched at the end of last month will come down. While China feels there is a lot of panic over nothing, space experts are concerned about the apparent casualness of the country with great space ambitions.
According to astronomers, the part of the so-called Long Mars 5B rocket that is most likely to crash this weekend is one of the largest pieces of space debris returning to Earth uncontrollably in about three decades.
In contrast to spaceNews magazine SpaceNews, Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agencys security programme, tells us that it is difficult to predict how much of the current launcher on its way to Earth will burn in the atmosphere. “But normally around 20 to 40 percent remains,” he says.
Especially the heat-resistant materials, such as fuel tanks, have the chance to survive the drafts to the surface of the earth. Possible crash spot? North as New York, south as Sydney and everything in between.
The area where the missile parts can end up:
Normally, such launchers are equipped with deorbit gadgets, in order to get the debris out of orbit more quickly or to allow them to be deposited in the ocean, for example.
It is not clear whether the Chinese had equipped the Long Mars 5B with that technology or whether it unexpectedly didnt work. From China, since the launch of the rocket, radio silence is mostly sound. Staatstabloid Global Times wrote an article about it last week, in which the case was dismissed as a “Western hype”. According to initiates at the Chinese Space Agency, there is nothing to worry about, also because the rocket part most likely comes down to a place far away from people.
Total lack of recognition
Astronomers and space experts look at that differently. A year ago, a similar missile component of a Long Mars 5B missile fell on a cheese factory in Côte dIvoire. Among other things, NASA boss Jim Bridenstine then criticized Chinas “very dangerous” action.
Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell considers Chinas actions to be particularly irresponsible. He calls it “total lack of recognition” that it is undesirable to return missile parts to Earth uncontrollably “disappointing”, he writes on Twitter.
British space journalist Andrew Jones, China expert for Space.com and SpaceNews, was among the first to notice that the Chinese launcher flew uncontrollably in orbit. He wrote an article about it immediately, but on the phone he told us that the matter is now and then quite exaggerated.
“ Its not something anyone really needs to worry about,” he nuances. “It most likely comes down in the ocean or on an uninhabited piece of land.”
Jones explains that China used the missile to get the 22-ton core module of its own Chinese space station into orbit. In the countrys ambitious space plans, this own station is a very expensive and prestigious part. Jones: “So it may be that they have focused mainly on successfully getting the module into the air and less with the return. This can be seen as irresponsible from the West in particular,” says Jones.
not until next year that launches with Long Mars 5B missiles will be planned again. According to Jones, it is interesting to see if China has taken measures for a more controlled return. “Because it seems to me that they did not see this coming beforehand,” he says. Until then, he expects to hear little from the country.
Above all, he hopes that the global fuss over the Chinese missile will lead to a broader dialogue between countries on space scrap. According to him, thats the real discussion. “Fortunately, this rocket hasnt been in orbit for long. There it is getting more and more full with potentially dangerous debris” he explains.
“ Not only from China, but also from Europe and the US, more and more are being launched, resulting in even more debris. This is a problem that can only be tackled jointly. A bit like climate change.”