Chinese Rocket Likely to Perform Uncontrolled Reentry

The Long March 5B rocket that launched the first module of Tiangong—called Tianhe—into orbit in April 2021.

The Long March 5B rocket that launched the first module of Tiangong—called Tianhe—into orbit in April 2021.
Image: STR/CNS/AFP (Getty Images)

A powerful rocket is set to blast off from Wenchang Space Launch Site in Hainan on a mission to expand China’s first space station. Similar to previous launches of the Long March 5B, however, the rocket could perform a dangerous uncontrolled reentry on its return.

China is in the midst of constructing its Tiangong space station—the country’s answer to the International Space Station—with one of the station’s modules already in place. China’s space agency is gearing up to launch the station’s Wentian module, which is set to occur this Sunday July 24 from the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Hainan.

Space.com reports that China began the rollout of its Long March 5B rocket—a 174-foot-tall (53 meters) and 1.87-million-pound (848,220 kilograms) rocket—to the launchpad over a two hour period on Monday. Once launched, the Wentian module will rendezvous with the Tianhe module in low Earth orbit, where Tianhe‘s robotic arm will move Wentian into its final position. Three Shenzhou-14 astronauts will greet the module upon its arrival.

The Long March 5B rocket is somewhat notorious, as it’s the same model of out-of-control rocket that hurt uncontrollably back to Earth last spring, with debris eventually landing in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. It could’ve been much worse, as the potential existed for debris to land on inhabited areas. And in fact, this exact thing happened following the May 20, 2020 launch of a Long March 5B rocket, with debris falling onto the west coast of Africa and damaging some structures (thankfully no one was hurt). A recent study suggests there’s a 10% risk in the next decade that falling rocket parts will cause casualtiesso this is hardly idle talk.

Gizmodo asked Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, if another uncontrolled reentry of Long March 5B rocket parts is possible. “I would say it is almost certain,” he replied via email. “I will be very pleasantly surprised if they have changed the core stage design. I expect they have not and we are up for another ride like the last time.”

With the launch and placement of Wentian, Tiangong will be halfway completed. Tianhethe first module whose name translates to “Harmony of the Heavens,” was launched in April 2021and will serve as the station’s life support, living quarters, control center, and docking hub for the remaining modules. Wentian, or “Quest for the Heavens,” will feature additional crew quarters, but the main purpose of the module is to serve as a base for scientific research. Two more modules—Mengtian and Xuntian—are scheduled to launch in October 2022 and during an unspecified launch in 2023.

China is ramping up its efforts to poise itself as a significant actor in space, but the country is establishing a track record of behaving badly along the way. Hopefully things will go smoothly for the upcoming launch, but for China, the uncontrolled reentry of Long March 5B rockets may be a feature and not a bug, and that’s sad.

More: What to Know About Lunar Gateway, NASA’s Future Moon-Orbiting Space Station

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