2) China’s Long March 5B first stage re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and (seemingly) lands in the Indian Ocean
A couple of weeks ago, China launched a Long March 5B rocket
to put into orbit the core module of the Chinese Space Station (see DFH April 26 - May 2
The LM-5B is somewhat unusual as it has no upper stage–the core stage delivered the Tianhe module directly to orbit, and for a bit more than a week, was in a rapidly-decaying orbit. Translation–there was, for the first ~⅓ of the month of May, a 23t piece of space junk flying around the earth at some several thousand km per hour.
While atmospheric reentry is a common thing in the space industry, it is rarer to see it happen to such a big piece of space hardware, and generally, it is a good practice to control the reentry in order to increase its chances of it occurring over the ocean. This rule historically has not always been applied (and there is no actual regulation), and this is currently the case for the LM5B core stage.
Ultimately, the core stage landed in the Indian Ocean, with apocalyptic scenarios of a NYC leveled by a LM-5B being….greatly exaggerated, to say the least. That said, more interesting was the reaction to this event in Western countries, and the non-reaction in China. Multiple media reports in the West have reported on the event with a doomsday like of feel
, with the lack of nuance likely due to the deteriorating Sino-Western relations. On the other hand, none of the mainstream space media in China were discussing the topic before the actual reentry, making this event look like a non-event (although there had been some discussion on Weibo). Chinese officials refuted any wrongdoing:
“It is a common practice around the world for launching vehicles to undergo a natural attenuation of orbital altitude and eventually enter the atmosphere for destruction.
China’s stance on carrying out peaceful use of outer space activities in accordance with international law and international practice is consistent, and we are willing to deepen international communication and cooperation to deal with space debris in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
- Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying on May 10 2021
Overall, probably the biggest impact of this event was the fact that a lot, lot of people got more interested in space. The media firestorm around the uncontrolled reentry led to lots of space industry personalities being interviewed by mainstream media, and seemed to markedly increase people’s interest in space. More to come in 2022, with multiple LM-5B launches planned.
Further reading: Andrew Jones did a good sum-up after the official reaction from Chinese officials and media (see tweet below). Overall, it seems like the message is: this type of uncontrolled atmospheric reentry is common practice, and China is a victim of US media bias.