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China's 21-TON rocket set for uncontrolled reentry in a few days

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 5/3/2021 Stacy Liberatore For and Jonathan Chadwick For Mailonline
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China’s 21-ton Long March 5b rocket is orbiting the planet in a path that could lead to the massive vehicle crashing back to Earth within the next few days, experts warn.

The core stage launched Thursday to deliver the first modular of the nation’s new space station, but instead of returning to a pre-determined post in the ocean, it is predicted to make an uncontrolled reentry - and possibly in an inhabited area.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting Earth, told SpaceNews that the Long March 5b’s path takes it ‘a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand,' and it could could land anywhere in this range. 

When the rocket stage falls to Earth, most of it could burn up in the atmosphere, but large pieces could survive that could rain down on populated areas - as the range is nearly 80 percent of the globe.

However, there are far more bodies of water along the reentry path than there is land, making it a higher probability that debris from Long March 5b will splashdown somewhere.

Satellite trackers have also detected the 100-foot-long, 16-foot-wide Long March 5B core stage, now designated the name '2021-035B', travelling at more than four miles per second.  

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China launched Long March 5B at 11:23 am local time on Thursday to deliver the first stage of its upcoming space station.

The modular, named 'Tianhe', or 'Harmony of the Heavens', will become living quarters for three crew members once the massive structure is complete.

China aims to complete its Chinese Space Station, known as Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) by the end of 2022, state media reported, after several further modules are launched.

When complete, Tiangong Space Station  will orbit Earth at an altitude of 211 to 280 miles.    

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It's expected to have a mass between 180,000 and 220,000 pounds – roughly one-fifth the mass of the ISS, which is 925,335 pounds. 

China aims to become a major space power by 2030 to keep up with rivals, including the US, Russia and the European Space Agency, and create the most advanced space station orbiting Earth.  

Chinese Space Station modules 

- Tianhe: Core module. Launched on April 29, 2021 

- Wentian: Experiment module I.  Launch planned for 2022

Mengtian: Experiment module II. Launch planned for 2022

Xuntian: Space telescope module. Planned launch in 2024 to co-orbit with Chinese Space Station   

ISS, currently in orbit, took 10 years and more than 30 missions to assemble from the launch of the first module back in 1998. 

The ISS is backed by five participating space agencies – NASA (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada) – but China was originally barred from participating by the US. 

However, the return of the rocket could put an end to China's celebration if the vehicle lands in an inhabited area.

Space debris trackers observed it moving slowly and unpredictably to Earth over the past few days, and  reentry of the vehicle would be one of the largest uncontrolled descents on record.

Long March 5B is about 100 feet long and 16 feet wide and although more than 10 tons of space debris has been left in orbit for an uncontrolled reentry, McDowell said that ‘by current standards it's unacceptable to let it reenter uncontrolled.’

China is aware of the potential uncontrolled descent, as Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Program Office for the European Space Agency, told SpaceNews: ‘It is always difficult to assess the amount of surviving mass and number of fragments without knowing the design of the object, but a reasonable 'rule-of-thumb' is about 20-40% of the original dry mass.’

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China previously launched Long March 5b in May 2020 to test the vehicle in preparation of sending people to the moon, but this mission also ended with an uncontrolled reentry.

The core stage of the Long March 5B rocket was sent into space on May 5 and fell to Earth a few days later, just off the coast of West Africa.

Its descent was confirmed by the 18th Space Control Squadron, a unit of the US Air Force that tracks space debris in Earth's orbit.

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The force said it was notable not just for the size of the rocket but also the extent of the window of its uncontrolled descent.

This uncontrolled descent left trackers guessing exactly where it would eventually land - with speculation it could be in the ocean or on land in Africa, US or Australia.

Before it splashed down in the waters off the west coast of Mauritania the rocket core flew over Los Angeles and New York City.

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