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Chinese rocket debris crashes to earth – and no one knows where


China’s latest launch of a massive rocket is once again alarming that debris will crash into the Earth’s surface in an uncertain location at high speed.

On Sunday afternoon local time, the Long March 5B took off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island province of Hainan, carrying a new solar-powered laboratory, the Wentian Experiment Module, which will be added to the China’s Tiangong Space Station.

But the size of the heavy rocket – it is 53.6 meters (176 feet) tall and weighs 837,500 kilograms (over 1.8 million pounds) – and the risky design of its launch process have led experts to fear that some debris from its central stage might not be consumed upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

China says runaway space rocket booster unlikely to cause any damage

As with the two previous launches, the rocket lost its empty 23-tonne first stage in orbit, meaning it will continue to loop Earth over the next few days as it gradually nears landing. This flight path is difficult to predict due to fluctuations in the atmosphere caused by changes in solar activity.

Although experts consider the chances of debris hitting a populated area to be very low, many also believe China is taking an unnecessary risk. After the center stage of the latest launch fell into the Indian Ocean, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said China ‘failed to meet responsible standards for its space debris’, including minimizing risks during the start of the school year and by being transparent about operations.

China rejects accusations of irresponsibility. In response to concerns over last year’s launch, China’s foreign ministry said the likelihood of damage was “extremely low”.

Ahead of the launch, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics who closely follows space launches, wrote on Twitter that he had hoped China would have adopted a new design to allow the core stage to be actively desorbed.

Late Sunday, McDowell added that US Space Command orbital data for two launch objects confirmed that the core stage “remains in orbit and has not been actively de-orbited.”


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