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Chinese Long March rocket breaks up on reentry over Maldives

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China‘s Long March rocket stage has reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, north of the Maldives, the US Space Agency has confirmed.  

The rocket broke up upon reentry, which occurred at 10.24pm U.S. Eastern Time on Saturday, according to officials, who have not yet given exact coordinates of where it reentered.

The Long March 5B – comprising one core stage and four boosters – lifted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29 with the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station. 

The rocket is set to be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station.

China’s Long March rocket stage has reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, the US Space Agency confirmed

The rocket stage will reportedly crash into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives

The rocket stage will reportedly crash into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives 

A massive 18-ton chunk of a Chinese rocket crashed back to earth tonight. Pictured: The Long March 5B rocket lifting off from the Wenchang launch site on China's southern Hainan island

A massive 18-ton chunk of a Chinese rocket crashed back to earth tonight. Pictured: The Long March 5B rocket lifting off from the Wenchang launch site on China’s southern Hainan island

Possible re-entry points are seen along he yellow line in this ground track from Space Track

Possible re-entry points are seen along he yellow line in this ground track from Space Track

New photographs taken by telescope emerged this week as the rocket plummeted across the stars ahead of its anticipated crash to Earth

New photographs taken by telescope emerged this week as the rocket plummeted across the stars ahead of its anticipated crash to Earth

Long March 5 rockets have been integral to China’s near-term space ambitions – from the delivery of modules and crew of its planned space station to launches of exploratory probes to the Moon and even Mars.

The Long March launched last week was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May last year.

McDowell previously told Reuters there is a chance that pieces of the rocket could come down over land, perhaps in a populated area, as in May 2020, when pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China. In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.

‘The Long March 5B reentry is unusual because during launch, the first stage of the rocket reached orbital velocity instead of falling down range as is common practice,’ the Aerospace Corporation said in a blog post.

‘The empty rocket body is now in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled re-entry.’

A graphic shows the section of the rocket that plunged back to Earth on Saturday

A graphic shows the section of the rocket that plunged back to Earth on Saturday

The Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province

The Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China’s Hainan Province

The first image of China’s rouge Long March 5B rocket has been released by astronomers. The Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project captured the craft, which appears like a glowing light, as it passed 435 miles above the group’s ‘Elena’ robotic telescope

The first image of China’s rouge Long March 5B rocket has been released by astronomers. The Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project captured the craft, which appears like a glowing light, as it passed 435 miles above the group’s ‘Elena’ robotic telescope

LONG MARCH 5B’s SPECS

The Long March 5b rocket, also known as Chang Zheng 5, is a Chinese-made heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Named for the Red Army’s Long March during the Chinese Civil War. 

It is the third most powerful launch vehicle in operation, after the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Delta IV Heavy. 

Height: 186.9ft 

Stages:

Payload to LEO: 55,000lb 

Total launches: 7

Launch site: Wenchang 

The empty core stage has been losing altitude since last week, but the speed of its orbital decay remained uncertain due to unpredictable atmospheric variables.

It is one of the largest pieces of space debris to return to Earth, with experts estimating its dry mass to be around 18 to 22 tons.

In 2020, debris from another Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.

The core stage of the first Long March 5B that returned to Earth last year weighed nearly 20 tones, surpassed only by debris from the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, and NASA’s Skylab in 1979. 

The first image of the rocket in orbit was released by astronomers on Thursday, with the Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project capturing the craft. 

The rocket was moving ‘extremely fast’ when it soared 435 miles above the Virtual Telescopes Project’s telescope Wednesday evening, researchers said.

Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project who snapped the image, stated that ‘while the Sun was just a few degrees below the horizon, so the sky was incredibly bright: these conditions made the imaging quite extreme, but our robotic telescope succeeded in capturing this huge debris.’

‘This is another bright success, showing the amazing capabilities of our robotic facility in tracking these objects.’ 

Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

The Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province

The Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China’s Hainan Province

CEO of British rocket startup, Skyrora, Volodymyr Levykin, said events like the fall of the Long March 5b ‘shouldn’t be happening,’ calling for action to address situations like this ‘before disaster strikes.’

‘There are around 26,000 objects currently orbiting the planet and new constellations of satellites being launched among debris from 60 years of space missions,’ he said. 

‘Orbital Transfer Vehicles, such as Skyrora’s space tug, are on hand to help safely deorbit space debris or transport it to a disposal orbit. 

‘With the capability of refiring its engine multiple times, a tug can complete several missions after deploying an initial payload.’

‘By integrating them as part of the rocket’s third stage, we can effectively deploy a vehicle as part of every launch, creating an orbital fleet of ‘space tugs’ ready to be called upon when required.’

He said every future launch, regardless of who is running it, should include some form of Space Tug, to make sure the ‘uncontrolled re-entries are a thing of the past.’ 

HOW MANY ITEMS ARE THERE IN ORBIT? 

  • Rocket launches since 1957:  5450
  • Number of satellites in orbit: 8950 
  • Number still in space: 5000 
  • Number still functioning: 1950
  • Number of debris objects: 22300
  • Break-ups, explosions etc: 500 
  • Mass of objects in orbit: 8400 tonnes 
  • Prediction of the amount of debris in orbit using statistical models 
  • Over 10cm: 34 000 
  • 1cm to 10cm: 900 000 
  • 1mm to 1cm: 128 million 

Source: European Space Agency 

‘It’s not only about helping the planet or clearing up the mess orbiting it but about protecting the crucial infrastructure that’s taken decades and trillions of dollars to build, which could effectively be wiped out in an instant.’ 

Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times said the stage’s ‘thin-skinned’ aluminium-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people.

That Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29. China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit over the coming years.

The roughly 30-meter (100-foot) -long stage would be among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.

The 18-ton rocket that fell last May was the heaviest debris to fall uncontrolled since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by US aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast. 

CHINA STEPS UP PLANS TO BECOME SPACE SUPERPOWER WITH MARS AND MOON MISSIONS

Officials from the Chinese space agency are working to become a space superpower alongside the US and Russia.

They have already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the Moon – sharing photos from the part of our nearest neighbour we rarely see as part of the Chang’e-4 mission.

In November 2020 they sent the Chang’e-5 space probe to the Moon to collect and return the first samples of lunar soil in 45 years.

This was done in collaboration with the European Space Agency who provided tracking information for the Chinese spaceship. 

Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the south pole of the Moon and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.

Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition, space environment in an overall mission, according to the Chinese space authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.

China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology and sending a future crewed mission to the surface.

Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it strives to verify the technology earmarked for the project.

The CNSA is also building an Earth-orbiting space station where Chinese astronauts will conduct scientific experiments, similar to the crew of the ISS.

The agency also launched a mission to Mars in summer 2020 which will see them land a rover on the surface of the red planet in February 2021.

China is also said to be working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, that would beam energy back to Earth and becoming the largest man made object in orbit. 

They also have a number of ambitious space science projects including satellites to hunt for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecrafts to monitor climate change. 

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