China’s rocket booster makes an uncontrolled return from space

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Charred remains of A The rocket booster plunged out of control toward Earth on Friday morning, an event China’s National Space Administration called recklessly dangerous.

The rocket re-entered the atmosphere in the south-central Pacific just after 6:00 a.m. ET US Space CommandWhich is part of the Department of Defense.

The dangerous situation marked the fourth uncontrolled reentry 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 landing gear to guide it to a safe landing. This event has sparked controversy time and time again, and space policy experts say that it involves an unnecessary risk.

“I want to note that the lower the acceptable risk, the more expensive it is to design for that risk. But it’s something that needs to be done,” Dr. Lael Woods, a space traffic management expert at the Space Security Institute, said at a news conference hosted by The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research center.

“Imagine the roads are completely empty today,” he continued. “Actually, there is no great need for rules or traffic lights and so on. But absolutely – with our population that we drive on the roads today – we have to have traffic lights and traffic signs and rules.”

According to Ted Muelhaupt, a space traffic expert and consultant to the Aerospace Corporation, the rocket booster is 108 feet (33 meters) end to end. Much of the hardware will burn up during the reentry process as the 22-metric-ton rocket plunges into Earth’s thick atmosphere, but about 10-40% is expected to survive. That’s when debris can get back into the atmosphere and become a threat, Muelhaupt said.

A Long Range 5B rocket has not yet posed a threat to humans. The remains, however, have been found on land. Muelhaupt noted that after one of the boosters crash-landed in 2022, debris was found in Malaysia and the Philippines.

This specific rocket booster was used on an October 31 mission that carried another piece of China’s new space station, named Tiangong, into orbit.

Most rockets flying today are built with a means to ensure that the rocket boosters are safely ejected. Some companies guarantee that the rockets are directed towards the ocean. US rocket company SpaceX manages to return its first-stage rocket booster — the largest and lowest part of a rocket that provides initial thrust upon liftoff — to a controlled, precise landing so it can be refurbished and reused.

Muelhaupt pointed out, however, that equipping a rocket to perform such a maneuver was trivial. It costs time and money to develop. Extra equipment adds mass, and when it comes to trying to escape the crushing pull of gravity and put precious cargo into space, every pound counts.

Muelhaupt added that he doesn’t foresee China trying to redesign its rocket to add safer landing capabilities, as making that kind of adjustment is not trivial.

“It can be really difficult to get an entire global community, or even segments of the global community, to come to an agreement on what those rules should be and standards like acceptable risk,” Woods said. “But while it is indeed difficult, we believe that establishing international consensus around these rules of conduct involving space is a worthy and important endeavor.”

In a tweet Friday, the US Space Command referred questions about the rocket re-entry to the Chinese government, which did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

In a meeting with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), however, spokesman Zhao Lijian referred questions to the department responsible for the rocket’s booster.

“As a matter of principle, I would like to emphasize that China has always carried out activities for the peaceful use of outer space in accordance with international law and international practice, and it is an internationally accepted practice to re-enter the upper stages of rockets into the atmosphere,” Zhao said. “The Chinese authorities have closely monitored the launch of the rocket. debris orbital parameters. We will disseminate the information to the international community in an open and transparent manner and in a timely manner.”