It looks like China, yet again, has launched a humongous rocket into space with little regard for where or when its parts might crash back down to Earth. On Sunday, July 24, China’s Long March 5B rocket blasted off from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island, carrying onboard a second major element that will be added to the Tiangong space station.
When some rockets are launched, certain parts are abandoned in orbit or dropped back to Earth. It’s possible to return a rocket body to Earth in a controlled way, but if the parts are left in orbit, they can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way. Most of the rocket body is burned up during re-entry, but occasionally, significant amounts can survive the red-hot fall to the planet’s surface.
Just like previous launches of the Long March 5B, it looks like China has opted for an uncontrolled re-entry of the rocket's first stage. Jonathan McDowell, a renowned astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted that he’s seen orbital data that shows the inert rocket core stage remains in orbit and was not actively deorbited, indicating that it’s likely to plummet to Earth in an uncontrolled freefall.
This is particularly concerning because of the size of the rocket. The Long March 5B is a colossal heavy-lift rocket, measuring 53.6 meters (176 feet) tall and weighing 837,500 kilograms (more than 1.8 million pounds). The sheer size of the rocket means that its first stage is less likely to totally burn up upon re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere – just as we’ve seen before.
In 2020, the booster of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket fell to Earth and some large chunks of metal damaged a village on Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa. A similar event occurred in 2021 when the booster from another Long March 5B splashed into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.
The odds of a person getting struck by falling rocket debris are very slim, but it’s a risk that’s increased in recent years. Research published earlier this month suggested there’s a 10 percent chance that uncontrolled space junk will come crashing back home and cause human casualties in the next 10 years.
For their part, China has dismissed previous concerns over uncontrolled rocket re-entries as “shameless hype,” arguing that this is nothing the US is not already guilty of. For instance, in March 2021, a piece of debris from a SpaceX rocket fell onto a farm in Washington state.
"Their hype and smears were in vain," the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, said in an editorial in May 2021 following the Long March 5B re-entry into the Indian Ocean. “The risks of falling rocket debris are the same, no matter whose rocket it is. It is seriously anti-intellectual to claim that China's rocket debris is especially risky.”
"These people are jealous of China's rapid progress in space technology," the article added.