Bridenstine Scolds China Over Long March Reentry Debris

Bridenstine Scolds China Over Long March Reentry Debris

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took China to task today after debris from the reentry of the core stage of its Long March-5B rocket fell in Africa.  Calling it “really dangerous,” he used it as an example of why the Artemis Accords unveiled today are necessary to ensure safe operations on the Moon.  In a statement, he said space exploration should “inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.”

On May 5, China launched a new version of its Long March-5 rocket, the LM-5B.  The LM-5 family is the largest in China’s fleet, roughly comparable to a U.S. Delta IV Heavy. Unlike its LM-5 cousin, the LM-5B does not have a second stage.  Instead, it has a much larger fairing to accommodate big payloads.

This was a test launch of a prototype crew spacecraft.  No one was aboard.  When operational, the spacecraft will be used to ferry crews to a new multi-modular China Space Station (CSS) China plans to construct in low Earth orbit between now and 2022.  All three CSS core modules will be launched by the LM-5B.  China also will use the LM-5B to launch robotic spacecraft to the Moon and Mars this year — the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission and the Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter/lander/rover.  More robotic missions and someday human trips to the Moon are expected to follow.

The LM-5B first stage, or core stage, augmented by four strap-on boosters that drop away soon after launch, does the lifting and reaches orbit along with the payload.  After a few days it makes an uncontrolled reentry.  In this case, it  remained in orbit until May 11.  Since there was no way to control its descent, it randomly fell over the Atlantic Ocean.

Pieces of space debris make uncontrolled reentries all the time.  They only make the news if they land in populated areas, which is rare since Earth’s surface is 70 percent covered by oceans.  It initially appeared that is just what happened.  The U.S. 18th Space Control Squadron announced its reentry coordinates using its Chinese initials, CZ (for Chang Zheng) instead of the English Long March.  R/B means rocket body.

But soon photographs been popping up on social media of residents of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) standing next to what experts concluded must be from the LM-5B core stage.

The big concern is that this is just the first launch of the LM-5B. The question becomes whether the populations of Earth that lie beneath the trajectory of LM-5B core stages will be at risk every time it is launched or if China will take steps to mitigate the risk.

The U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, of which China is a member, published a set of mitigation guidelines in 2010.

Within its own borders, China has shown a rather cavalier attitude towards rocket stages and other debris that fall on villages. China space expert Andrew Jones has posted photographs and videos on his Twitter feed (@AL_FL).

Asked by @SciGuySpace if China has indicated this was just a one-time event, Jones replied that a “semi-official outlet  basically said: ‘what’s the problem? It’s normal.'”

China has been more attuned to international concerns, however.  Its first space station, Tiangong-1, made an uncontrolled reentry in 2018, but China left enough fuel on its second space station, Tiangong-2, to make a controlled reentry in 2019.

Those had a mass of about 8.6 Metric Tons.  The LM-5B core stage was more than twice that.

Bridenstine raised the LM-5B debris today in the context of NASA’s release of the Artemis Accords, a set of principles the United States is asking international partners to adopt if they want to join the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.  One is to act responsibly with regard to orbital debris and spacecraft disposal.

During a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Regulatory and Policy Committee, he called the reentry “really dangerous.”  He also issued a statement on how it underscores the need for an agreement like the Artemis Accords.

“The empty core stage of the Long March-5B, weighing nearly 20 tons, was in an uncontrolled freefall along a path that carried it over Los Angeles and other densely populated areas.  As a matter of fact, had this spent rocket stage, which is the largest uncontrolled object to fall from low-Earth orbit in almost 30 years, reentered earlier, it could have hit New York.  Two villages in Cote d’Ivoire have reported finding what they believe to be debris from the fallen rocket stage.  I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords.  It’s vital for the U.S. to lead and establish norms of behavior against such irresponsible activities.  Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.” — Jim Bridenstine

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