China is in the news once again. The country, which is now in the midst of a significant economic battle with the United States, has set its sights on conquering the space frontier. However, things haven't exactly been going too smoothly for it.
As many space enthusiasts probably know, China is on the fast track towards developing its space station. The country has been working on the project for quite some time now, and it is finally making some headway in that regard.
Freefall at Its Best
Last month, China launched the Long March 5B, its largest rocket to date, from its Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Hainan. The rocket carried the “Tianhe” (which translates to “Harmony of the Heavens”) - a module that contained living quarters for three crew members on its new permanent space station.
Tianhe is set to be one of the three main components of the Chinese space station. The station is set to rival the International Space Station (ISS), marking Chinese presence in space and allowing the government to conduct significant research across the board. While the United States partners with several countries to run the ISS, China has been barred from the project altogether. With its open space station, China won’t need any outside help to conduct space missions.
It is a simple theory, but a challenging project to go through. So, when Tianhe launched last month, there was a significant amount of anticipation to see how the project would start.
Tianhe eventually had a smooth run, but the re-entry of Long March 5B into the Earth’s atmosphere wasn’t so good. Apparently, the rocket was supposed to simply fall back into the Earth’s atmosphere, landing pretty much where it would. The Chinese space authorities didn't have control over the rocket to begin with, making it a pretty wild card.
According to reports, authorities in the United States had raised warnings over the possibility that Long March 5B would land on residential areas and endanger the lives of hundreds - if not thousands. Military experts were especially annoyed by the fact that they couldn't accurately predict where the rocket would land.
Cause for Alarm?
Still, China downplayed any concerns. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said:
“China is following closely the upper stage’s reentry into the atmosphere. To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means that most of its parts will burn up upon reentry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low.”
Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defence, had already ruled out the possibility of shooting down Long March 5B. As far as he was concerned, the rocket’s re-entry will be left into the hands of fate. Hopefully, it doesn’t land close to any human settlements or homes.
All in all, Long March 5B measures 98 feet in length and 16.5 feet in width. Its total weight is about 21 metric tons. Apart from military personnel, The Aerospace Corporation, a federally-funded space-focused think tank, said in a tweet that it was predicting Long March 5B to land around the north island of New Zealand. Despite that, the agency added that it wasn't certain where the rocket would be put down.
A Rough Landing for Long March 5B
Long March 5B eventually landed on May 9th, with the rocket setting down in the Indian Ocean. According to a statement from the Chinese space authorities, the rocket landed just west of the Maldives. Downplaying the effects of the landing, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said:
“The vast majority of the device burned up during the reentry, and the landing area of the debris is around a sea area with the center at 2.65 degrees north latitude and 72.47 degrees east longitude.”
While China wasn’t overly concerned with the rocket’s landing, the United States quickly chided its rival. In a statement, Sen. Bill Nelson, NASA’s Administrator, explained that countries with space missions would need to maintain the highest safety standards - both to their crew and others who might be affected by rocket re-entry. Nelson added that China had failed to meet these standards, further criticizing the country’s handling of the rocket re-entry process.
The Chinese government has yet to respond to Nelson’s statement, and it is even unclear whether they would. In truth, leaving a rocket to land as it will isn’t exactly a responsible thing to do. While China can fall on the argument that the rocket didn’t hurt anyone, it’s not the best idea to leave these instances to chance.
It is especially critical to ensure safety since China plans to launch similar missions in the future as it moves ahead with its space station project. Still, knowing the Chinese, there’s a significant chance that such a controversy won’t happen again.