Amid differing concerns over China’s decision to allow a massive booster rocket to fall uncontrollably to Earth, a Chinese cargo spacecraft that served the country’s permanent orbiting space station may re-enter the atmosphere. It got burnt to a great extent.
The China Manned Space Agency said only small parts of the Tianzhou-3 ship survived a safe landing in a predetermined area of the South Pacific on Wednesday.
As of July 17, the spacecraft was docked with the Tianhe core section of the station and its return follows the addition of a laboratory module on Monday as China moves to complete the station in the coming months.
China’s space program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and has largely proceeded with the space station program without assistance from other countries. The US kicked China out of the International Space Station because of its military ties.
The booster that has caught the attention of the space community was part of the 23-ton Long March 5B-Y3 rocket – China’s most powerful – that carried the Wentian module to the station, which currently houses three astronauts.
China decided not to send the booster back into the atmosphere and it is unclear when or where it will land on Earth. Although it will largely burn upon return, there remains little risk of fragmentation or casualties.
According to researchers at The Aerospace Corporation “a populated area has a non-zero probability of remaining debris landing – more than 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the potential debris footprint of reentry.”
While China is not alone in such practices, the size of the Long March rocket stage has drawn special scrutiny.
China has allowed rocket stages to fall back to Earth on its own at least twice before, and was accused last year by NASA of “failing to meet responsible standards with respect to its space debris.”
In 2018,, China’s defunct space station, made an uncontrolled re-entry and landed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In 2020, another Long March-5B rocket plunged into the atmosphere, eventually landing near the west coast of Africa.
China drew heavy criticism in 2007 after it used a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites, creating a massive debris field.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Wednesday dismissed such concerns.
“Since the development phase of the space engineering program, China has focused on debris mitigation and return from orbit to the atmosphere of missions involving rocket carriers and orbiting satellites,” Zhao told a daily briefing on Wednesday. “
“It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special technological design that most of the components will be burned and destroyed during the re-entry process,” Zhao said. “The potential for damage to aviation activities or on the ground is extremely low.”
The most significant re-entry into a populated area was the breakup shuttle Columbia, which entered February 2003. When the 200,000-pound spacecraft broke down over Texas, a significant amount of debris hit the ground, but no one was injured.
Similarly, when Skylab re-entered in 1978, debris fell over Western Australia, but no casualties were reported.
William Harwood and Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.