The abandoned body of a Chinese “Long March 5B” rocket broke through the Earth’s atmosphere on Saturday evening, making its re-entry in the Indian Ocean, just a little west of the Maldives. The Pentagon had been tracing the rocket body since last week, but because of the unusual movement of the rocket body and its orbit, it had been difficult to predict where exactly the huge space trash would fall back to the planet.
On April 28, the Long March 5B helped launch ‘Tianhe’, which is the core module in China’s new, next-gen space station. The space base is scheduled to be completed in late 2022, in order to serve as a scientific research outpost for China over the next decade, and it’ll be the only other functional space man-made habitat aside from the International Space Station.
How could this happen?
As we all know, what goes up, must come down, taking this into account. A while back in 2018 also, similar events took place, when China’s out-of-control Tiangong-1 space station re-entered the atmosphere above the ocean near Tahiti. Thankfully, no one was injured, and the debris was either burned up or ended up on the floor of the South Pacific.
When space agencies usually launch large rockets, they technically don’t reach orbit instead they’re mostly designed to fall back into the ocean. And at other times, rockets and satellites have built-in mechanisms to voluntarily make them leave orbit and lead them back to Earth safely. Many have been purposely tossed into the spacecraft cemetery i.e., a huge, uninhabited Pacific Ocean area. It’s one of the most distant locations on the planet from land.
Long March 5B which carried Tianhe had made it into orbit and when its engines were shut down, it was pulled back by Earth’s gravity. Drag on the rocket makes sure that its orbit slowly decays. Each rotation around the Earth brings it closer to a point, where it ultimately bangs into the atmosphere.
Space junk, discarded rocket boosters, scraps of metal, and unfunctional satellites, can remain in orbit for years and even decades. Moreover, almost 3,000 satellites are in orbit and remain in operation, but almost three times that amount are dead.
James Blake, an astrophysicist Ph.D. student at the University of Warwick, said that as we’ve launched more and more satellites into space, the problem has gotten progressively worse.
On April 6, U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin said that the “US doesn’t plan to shoot the Long March 5B and is hopeful it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone.”
If you want to see how the end of that huge debris of (22 tons, 30 meters/98 feet long and 5 meters/16 feet wide) Long March 5B will look like, then luckily Gianluca Masi of Ceccano, Italy, managed to capture an image, which he shared on his Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 website.