Chinese Rocket Stage Expected to Make Uncontrolled Reentry November 4

Chinese Rocket Stage Expected to Make Uncontrolled Reentry November 4

China’s launch of its Mengtian space station module means that another Long March-5B rocket stage is about to make an uncontrolled reentry somewhere on Earth. Previous international criticism of China’s decision not to equip the stage with a system to target its reentry into an unoccupied spot in the Pacific Ocean does not seem to have made any difference. When and where it will land is difficult to predict, but calculations by the Aerospace Corporation and the European Union’s space tracking organization estimate reentry tomorrow, November 4, with many populated areas including in the United States under the possible debris path.

China launched Mengtian on Monday, October 31. The module successfully docked with two existing modules, Tianhe and Wentian, a few hours later completing assembly of the Tiangong-3 space station. The three taikonauts aboard the facility entered Mengtian for the first time today.

Meanwhile, the Long March-5B (or Chang Zheng-5B) rocket stage that put it there has been slowly reentering due to friction with Earth’s atmosphere. While some portions of the rocket burn up during descent, enough survived in at least two of the three previous LM-5B reentries to rain debris on populated areas. Space objects reenter all the time, but the vast majority are small and disintegrate before reaching the ground. Big pieces of the LM-5B rocket body can survive because it is so large: 98 feet (30 meters) long, 16.5 feet (5 meters) wide, with a mass of about 23 tons (21 Metric Tons).

The LM-5 family is the largest in China’s fleet, roughly comparable to a U.S. Delta IV Heavy.

The Long March-5B is needed to put the space station modules into orbit. 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. The LM-5B core stage is augmented by four strap-on boosters that drop away soon after launch. The core stage does the rest and reaches orbit along with the payload. After a few days it makes an uncontrolled reentry at a random location between 41.5 degrees North and 41.5 degrees South latitude.

The first time that happened was during a test launch in 2020 that rained debris over the Ivory Coast. Then in 2021, the rocket body for Tianhe’s launch splashed into the Indian Ocean. Earlier this year, debris from the launch of Wentian landed in Borneo and the Philippines.

The Aerospace Corporation, a Federally Funded Research and Development Center that supports the national security space sector, predicts reentries using orbital data from U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command.

As of 3:30 pm ET today, it predicts reentry on November 4 at 12:25 UTC plus or minus 4 hours, which would be 08:25-16:25 UTC. That would be 4:25 am-12:25 pm Eastern Daylight Time tomorrow. Many populated areas including in the United States are under the ground tracks.

Source: Aerospace Corporation

The European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) organization is predicting a bit earlier reentry at 10:49:35 UTC plus or minus 223 minutes, with a similar ground track. That would be roughly 10:50 UTC plus or minus four hours or 06:50-14:40 UTC or 2:50 am – 10:50 am EDT.

Source: European Union Space Survillance and Tracking website.

The ground tracks and reentry time estimates will continue to be refined as time passes. Check Aerospace’s reentry website and the EUSST website for current information.

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