After the start of construction for China’s space station: rocket stage before uncontrolled crash

After the launch of the core module of the planned Chinese space station Tianhe, experts warn that part of the transport rocket will fall to earth in an uncontrolled manner. For example, Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics sharply criticized those responsible for planning the crash when the rocket was being developed.

Astrophysicist McDowell criticizes that the main stage of the “Langer Marsch 5B” rocket used is not intended for a controlled crash. When this version was first started, there had been reports of metal parts that had crashed over an inhabited area in the Ivory Coast and damaged several houses.

After the rocket was launched last week, the Western space community congratulated the Chinese. The young space nation is once again proving its great ambitions and considerable expertise by building its own space station.

If the obsolete international space station ISS goes out of service in a few years, as planned, China would be the only nation with a permanent outpost in space. The Chinese station “Tiangong” (Heavenly Palace) is to be less than half the size of the ISS with 240 tons. The core module Tianhe (Heavenly Harmony), which has now been put into orbit, weighs 22 tons.

China is now being criticized for not having provided measures for the “Long March 5B” missile to ensure a controlled crash over uninhabited areas. This is no longer common, says McDowell. Since the uncontrolled crash of the US space laboratory Skylab in 1979, other space nations or companies have maneuvered the main parts of their rockets in such a way that they deliberately crash over uninhabited areas.

“With the Langer Marsch 5B, China did not pursue any of these approaches,” McDowell criticized the dpa. It was built in such a way that it crashes in an “arbitrary place”: “The design is negligent compared to current standards in other countries.”

The main rocket stage is currently racing once around the earth in about 90 minutes and is already slowly sinking, McDowell explained on Twitter. At the moment it looks like it will crash on May 10th. Where exactly could one only estimate shortly beforehand and it is still most likely that debris that does not burn up will fall over uninhabited areas. But there is a certain residual risk that it will hit populated areas.

The risk zone covers every part of the earth’s surface between 41 degrees north and 41 degrees south latitude, explained the European Space Agency ESA. This makes Germany safe, but all of Africa, South America, large parts of North America and Asia are in this area.

Apart from the first uncontrolled crash of the Chinese rocket stage last year, the 20-ton stage is the largest piece of debris in decades. For example, the Chinese space laboratory Tiangong 2, which burned up uncontrollably over the Pacific in 2019, only weighed around nine tons. In view of the fact that the uncontrolled crash of the rocket stage is designed in the Langer Marsch 5B, it should not be the last time that such warnings have been issued. According to SpaceNews’ Andrew Jones Two more launches of a Langer Marsch 5B are planned for the construction of the Tiangong space station alone.


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