Nelson Chastises China for Another Uncontrolled Rocket Reentry

Nelson Chastises China for Another Uncontrolled Rocket Reentry

China’s Long March-5B rocket stage made an uncontrolled reentry this morning. No reports of debris falling on populated areas have surfaced so far. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued another statement criticizing China for taking unneccessary risks and not sharing information needed to accurately predict where it would come down.

Today is the fourth time a Chinese LM-5B rocket, which is very large, randomly reentered and so far it looks as though China is two for two. Twice debris impacted populated areas and twice it didn’t.

Launch of the Mengtian space station module by a Long March-5B rocket, October 31, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua. The long, white core stage in the center is what reentered today. It is 98 feet (30 meters) long, 16.5 feet (5 meters) wide, with a mass of about 23 tons (21 Metric Tons).

U.S. Space Command tweeted this morning that the rocket body reentered at 4:01 am Mountain Time (6:01 am EDT, 10:01 UTC) over the south-central Pacific Ocean. Rather surprisingly, another tweet soon appeared revealing that a second reentry occurred 5 minutes later suggesting the LM-5B broke in two high enough in the atmosphere that there were two reentry points. The second was in the northeast Pacific Ocean at 4:06 am Mountain Time (6:06 am EDT, 10:06 UTC).

Launched on October 31, the LM-5B (or Chang Zheng-5B, CZ-5B) rocket lofted the Mengtian space station module to orbit where it docked with two other modules, Tianhe and Wentian, completing assembly of the Tiangong-3 space station.

Illustration of the China Space Station, also called Tiangong-3, from a booklet provided by China to the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 2018 seeking international experiments.

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 these 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 of the lifting and reaches orbit along with the payload. After a few days it makes an uncontrolled reentry through the atmosphere to land at a random location between 41.5 degrees North and 41.5 degrees South latitude.

This happened three times previously. A test launch in 2020 rained debris over the Ivory Coast. In 2021, the rocket body for Tianhe’s launch splashed into the Indian Ocean, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told a Senate committee it could just as easily have come down in Europe or Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, debris from the launch of Wentian landed in Borneo and the Philippines.

No reports of debris from this launch have emerged so far, but the danger was there. Nelson and his predecessor, Jim Bridenstine, have issued statements criticizing China each time. Nelson said in 2021 and earlier this year that China is behaving irresponsibly. He did so again today in an email circulated to the media.

“Once again, the People’s Republic of China is taking unnecessary risks with the uncontrolled rocket stage reentry of their Long March 5B rocket stage. They did not share specific trajectory information which is needed to predict landing zones and reduce risk. This is the PRC’s fourth uncontrolled reentry since May 2020, and each of these reentries have been the largest in last 30 years. It is critical that all spacefaring nations are responsible and transparent in their space activities and follow established best practices, especially, for the uncontrolled reentry of a large rocket body debris – debris that could very well result in major damage or loss of life.” — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson

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