For the second time in 15 months, the world has watched and waited as a Long March booster rocket orbited the Earth prior to an uncontrolled entry. In the end, the rocket ditched safely in the ocean between Vietnam and the Philippines. However, it broke up in Malaysian airspace on the return journey, and even a small decrease in drag could have seen pieces hit the Philippines. Chinese reports place splashdown near 9.1° N, 119° E.
This weekend’s fall didn’t attract as much attention as the Long March rocket that came down in an uncontrolled entry in May 2021, but it was considerably closer to hitting populated areas. Perhaps we’re getting used to the idea of human materials crashing through our roofs.
The booster weighed 23 metric tons, although we may never know how much of that burned up on entry and how much reached sea level.
Professor Brad Tucker of the Australian National University, fresh from checking out the crew trunk of a SpaceX mission that landed in southern Australia, told IFLScience that the uptick in these events partially reflects the increased volume of launches.
Tucker also noted that China is frantically trying to catch up with the United States in space technology. “The Americans did the same thing decades ago,” Tucker said, but have generally improved their control of returning components, despite last month’s mishap. Until China does the same, we may have a few more unexpected visits ahead.
A recent alarming study concludes there is a 10 percent chance someone will be hit by human-produced material returning from space in the next 10 years. This estimate is based on objects already in orbit and makes a linear projection of future launch volume. As Tucker noted, launches are now increasing exponentially, so the danger is probably greater.
Tucker told IFLScience that solutions are less about the needing legislation to stop countries engaging in uncontrolled re-entries, and more about “How that is going to be enforced.” As he added, that’s a problem with many areas of international law.
In 1978 a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite broke up over Canada, No one was killed, but finding and cleaning up the 10 pieces of radioactive material proved expensive. Most of the potentially lethal fuel was never found. The USSR contributed, but not nearly as much as the Canadians thought they should have. “Without going to war, what are you going to do?” Tucker asked. Cote d’ Ivoire probably felt the same way when large pieces of metal from a Long March rocket damaged a village there in 2020, and other nations may get used to the same feeling.
The problem is exacerbated by the more common orbital paths mean most space junk lands between the 40th latitudes. That means large parts of the countries doing most of the launching are out of harm's way, while those at greatest risk have little say.