On May 5, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) successfully launched its new crewed capsule to low-Earth orbit and despite an anomaly, it landed back in one piece in the Mongolian desert. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for its rocket, which entered an uncontrolled reentry and splashed back to Earth somewhere off the coast of West Africa.
The orbital test served to conduct various assessments and experiments in its two-day-19-hours-trip around our planet. The design for the spacecraft was recently changed to accommodate a larger number of taikonauts, the country's name for its astronauts, from three to six. The CNSA reported an unspecified anomaly with one of the tests but has not expanded on what happened.
The spacecraft is a key step for the Chinese space program, as the country is planning to have its orbital space station completed by 2022 and a future human mission to the Moon. That requires a capable crewed spacecraft, but also a powerful rocket. Last week’s test was also the maiden launch of the Chang Zheng (Long March) 5B, a variant on the regular Chang Zheng 5, which has been employed for three flights already.
While the rocket did its job and appears in tiptop shape to take taikonauts to the Moon and robotic missions to Mars, one of its stages came crashing back to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry, landing somewhere in the ocean off the west coast of Mauritania. Though the descent was deemed uncontrolled, it was not unplanned. What was unusual was the window for where and when it would land.
The core stage was very unlikely to fall on or hurt anyone, and it is believed that most of it burnt up in the atmosphere, but those uncertainties have given pause. At 30 meters (100 feet) by 5 meters (16 feet), it was the largest object to experience uncontrolled reentry since the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, reports SpaceFlightNow.
The rocket orbited in a way that took it over some of the most populous areas of the planet, from New York in the Northern Hemisphere to Wellington in the Southern one. The rocket stage was moving at several kilometers per second, so even a small uncertainty in the timing can be dramatic. If the estimate is off by just 1 minute, it means hundreds of kilometers difference. However, as the rocket part was slowed down more and more by the tenuous upper atmosphere, its path became clearer.
It landed in the mid-North Atlantic, late morning on May 11 according to Aerospace, although there's speculation on twitter that a long fragment crashing into the village of Mahounou in Côte d'Ivoire is part of the rocket.