An unmanned segment of a Chinese rocket came within an “alarming” distance of the International Space Station, a leading astronomer says.
China’s Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tinhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29.
But instead of re-entering the atmosphere soon after liftoff, it floated out-of-control in orbit for more than a week.
On Sunday, the world tracked its path over continents before it crashed into the Indian Ocean.
Among those mapping its journey was astronomer Jonathan McDowell from the US Centre for Astrophysics.
He tweeted the spacecraft’s descent, including instances that it crossed over Canberra and Perth.
But on Monday, he said that it had a near miss – by space standards – to the International Space Station.
“During launch of the CZ-5B/Tianhe, about six minutes after Tianhe and the CZ-5B separated, they both came close to the ISS,” he said.
“(They were) under 300km (apart), which given uncertainties in trajectory is a tad alarming.”
McDowell said it required “finite timing” to pass by the ISS so closely.
“(It) does raise the possibility it was done deliberately as some kind of gesture,” he said.
“I gather the ISS partners were NOT warned it would do this.”
Ultimately, the Long March 5B crashed into the Indian Ocean about 12.24pm Sunday AEST.
Coordinates offered by China’s space agency showed it re-entered the atmosphere over the Arabian Sea, north of the Maldives and southwest of Sri Lanka.
The launch was the first of 11 such missions planned by China to build the new space station.
More often, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.
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