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The charred remains of a rocket booster plunged back to Earth uncontrollably on Friday morning, an event labeled in the West as an irresponsibly risky move by the China National Space Administration.
The rocket entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean just after 6 a.m. ET, according to the American Space Commandwhich is part of the Ministry of Defence.
This dangerous situation marked the fourth uncontrolled return of a Long March 5B rocket since the Chinese space agency began flying it two years ago, as the vehicle was designed without the necessary equipment to steer itself to a safe landing. That fact has repeatedly sparked controversy and has been criticized by space policy experts who say it poses an unnecessary risk.
“I want to point out that the lower the acceptable risk, the more expensive it is to design for that risk. But it’s something that has to happen,” said Dr. Lael Woods, a space traffic management expert at the Space Safety Institute, at a press conference hosted by The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research center.
“Imagine the roads are completely empty today,” she continued. “It really doesn’t take much to have rules or traffic lights and things like that. But we absolutely must – with our population that we have on the roads today – have traffic lights and road signs and rules.”
The rocket booster is 108 feet (33 meters) from end to end, noted Ted Muelhaupt, a space traffic expert and advisor to Aerospace Corporation. Much of the hardware will burn up during the fiery reentry process as the 22-ton rocket plunges back into Earth’s thick atmosphere, but about 10% to 40% is expected to survive. That’s how much debris can get back into the atmosphere and pose a threat, Muelhaupt said.
A Long March 5B missile has yet to pose a threat to humans. Debris has been found on the land. Muelhaupt noted that after one of the boosters made an emergency landing in 2022, debris was found in Malaysia and the Philippines.
This particular rocket booster was used on an Oct. 31 mission that put another piece of China’s new space station, called Tiangong, into orbit.
Most rockets flying today are built with a means of ensuring that rocket boosters are safely disposed of. Some companies arrange for missiles to be sent back to the ocean. US rocket company SpaceX even manages to redirect its first stage rocket boosters — the largest, lower part of a rocket that provides initial thrust upon takeoff — to a controlled, accurate landing so they can be refurbished and relaunched. are used.
However, Muelhaupt noted that equipping a missile to make such a maneuver is far from trivial. It takes time and development money. The extra gear also adds mass, and when it comes to escaping the crushing pull of gravity and launching precious cargo into space, every pound counts.
Muelhaupt added that he doesn’t foresee China trying to redesign its missile to add safer landing capabilities, as making those kinds of adjustments isn’t trivial.
“It can be very difficult to bring an entire global community, or even segments of the global community, together to agree on what those standards should be and for standards such as things like acceptable risk,” Woods said. “But while it is very difficult, we believe it is absolutely a worthy and important undertaking to achieve international consensus on these standards of behavior in space.”
In a tweet on Friday, US Space Command referred questions about the missile’s return to the government of China, which did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.
However, during a briefing with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), spokesman Zhao Lijian referred questions to the department responsible for the rocket booster.
“As a matter of principle, I would like to emphasize that China has always carried out activities for the peaceful use of space in accordance with international law and practice, and it is internationally accepted practice to reuse the upper stages of missiles. enter the atmosphere,” Zhao said. “The Chinese authorities have been closely monitoring the relevant trajectory parameters of missile wrecks. We will release information to the international community in an open, transparent and timely manner.”