The uncontrolled re-entry of a China Long March rocket into Earth’s atmosphere has spurred the calls for new policies to help mitigate the growing problem of space junk.
Early this month, the remnants of the Chinese rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.
Most of the huge Long March 5B rocket, however, burned up on reentering the atmosphere, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a post on WeChat, before it landed just west of the Maldives.
The rocket, which was about 108 feet tall and weighs nearly 40,000 pounds, had launched a piece of a new Chinese space station into orbit on April 29.
After its fuel was spent, the rocket had been left to hurtle through space uncontrolled until Earth’s gravity dragged it back to the ground.
Generally, most rockets used to lift satellites and other objects into space conduct more controlled reentries that aim for the ocean, or they are left in so-called “graveyard” orbits that keep them in space for decades or centuries.
But the Long March rocket is designed in a way that “leaves these big stages in low orbit,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Centre at Harvard University.
NASA, the US space agency, castigated China for failing to meet “responsible standards regarding its space debris” after remnants of a Chinese rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean.
“Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” CNN quoted NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson’s statement.
“China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” he added.
Chinese officials downplayed the mishap, but this is not the first time that a piece of Chinese space hardware has made an uncontrolled landing, and the latest incident highlights the need to mitigate a larger space debris issue, Al Jazeera reported.
However, no other launcher in the world leaves such a massive component to fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner.
This is not the first time that a piece of Chinese hardware has made an uncontrolled landing.
In July 2019, China’s previous space station, called Tiangong-2, began to make its descent back to Earth after being decommissioned.
The Chinese government also downplayed the risk to populated areas, as it was able to target a specific landing area in the Pacific Ocean thanks to minimal onboard fuel reserves.
There is no law on the books currently that forbids pieces of rockets from crashing to Earth’s surface. But there are rules in place that say who is responsible when it comes to damage or injury from space junk.
The issue of space debris is not new but is expected to grow as more nations build space programmes and more objects are launched into space.
“Space debris has been known for a while, but now you have more competition in space,” Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor at the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the Mississippi School of Law, told Al Jazeera.
“You do not just have two spacefaring nations – the Chinese are becoming very significant, as is the European Space Agency, among others. When you have more actors and more stuff, it gets more complicated,” she added.
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