A video posted on the Chinese forum, Weibo, claims to show the burnt booster wreckage of spaceflight Shenzhou 12, which took the first taikonauts up to China’s new space station last week. Furthermore, the wreckage appears to be leaking a strikingly colored gas, thought to be nitrogen tetroxide, an extremely toxic compound used as an oxidizer in rocket fuel.
According to the original poster, the wreckage was found at 9:30 AM in Otog Banner, Ordos (a banner within southwestern Inner Mongolia). A task force was established to salvage the debris, and local residents were evacuated and barred from entering the affected area. By 1:00 PM, all debris was reportedly found, and attempts to remove it were underway.
A local media outlet reported that the task force consisted of Armed Forces, Ministry of Human Resources, fire protection, and other personnel, who attended the scene and searched for core and booster debris. Some fell near the populous area of Qipanjing Town, but no injuries have been reported.
The debris originated from the June 17 launch of Shenzhou 12. Shenzhou 12 was a crewed spaceflight carrying three taikonauts up into orbit to board the new space station Tiangong, which currently consists of just the core modules, where they will reside for 90 days before returning to Earth. While the mission was a success, firmly placing all taikonauts safely aboard the station, some of the debris was unaccounted for.
If confirmed, the large debris should now be accounted for and collected. Concerns were raised for the safety of such debris laying freely in areas surrounded by people, with rocket boosters carrying toxic chemicals that pose serious health risks. One such chemical, nitrogen tetroxide (likely the bright yellow smoke rising from the booster) can induce serious lung damage, edema, and death when inhaled, and must be professionally cleared before civilians can safely return to the area.
China has come under fire in recent months over its handling of debris from rocket launches. In May, a falling Long March 5B rocket section caused worldwide speculation and panic as it uncontrollably traveled through the atmosphere and overpopulated areas. At the time, it was unpredictable as to where it could land, and astronomers were concerned it may land in an urban area. Luckily, it safely landed in the Indian Ocean, far from civilization, but soon calls for tighter regulations on space debris surfaced. However, the multitude of Chinese launches to build the space station have continued, and it is unclear whether they have tightened landing procedures.