The first stage of the Chinese rocket is expected to fall back to Earth between May 8 and 9

Chinese rocket

China launched the first module of its future space station a few days ago. And today, the main stage of the rocket that put it into orbit, out of control, is slowly but inexorably heading towards Earth. Where could he fall?

A few days ago, the Chinese launcher Long March 5B made the headlines. He had put in orbit Tianhe, the first module, the heart of the future Chinese space station. Its main stage could then have performed maneuvers for a controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. But the operation did not take place, condemning the rest of the rocket to an imminent collision – between May 8 and 9, more or less eight hours, experts say – with the surface of our planet.

The trouble is, no one can say, right now, where this collision will occur. Because the ground radars have spotted the object – you can follow it at this address – 30 meters long and five meters in diameter which tumbled at a speed of more than 25,500 km / h and at an altitude between 170 and 372 kilometers. A high speed and a fluctuating altitude added to many other uncertainties which indeed prevent predicting the point of impact.

The latest predictions are based on an atmospheric re-entry between May 8 and 9. 
On the map above, the regions overflown by space debris. 

Experts in the dark

A year ago, a 17-ton piece of the Long March 5 rocket had already fallen into the Pacific Ocean after partially burning. Some debris even ended up in a village in Côte d’Ivoire, luckily without causing any casualties. This time, some are hoping that the debris will fall to Earth at night. With the main stage nine times as massive as the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that lit the skies over Seattle (United States) about a month ago, the spectacle could be awe-inspiring.

The chances are great that it will fall into the ocean which covers some 70% of the globe. But given the orbital inclination of the debris, it could fall almost anywhere in an area limited to the north by New York, Madrid, and Beijing and to the south by southern Chile and Wellington (New -Zealand). Once the day of its return to Earth is established, experts should be able to predict the point of impact of the main stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket within six hours of impact.

And international observers are moved to note that China seems not to have planned a controlled deorbiting for the main stage of its launcher. Since 1990, nothing over 10 tonnes has been deliberately left in orbit to enter our atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner. However, the  ”  dry mass “ of the debris in question is estimated at no less than … 21 tonnes! In theory, between 20 and 40% of this mass could arrive  “intact” on the ground …

The biggest space debris in 30 years fell on Earth yesterday!

The remains of the Chinese Long March 5 rocket, launched on May 5, recently crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. This uncontrolled descent of space debris is the most spectacular in recent decades.

The Chinese Long March 5 rocket successfully completed its launch on May 5, 2020, for a few days in Earth orbit before returning to Earth. The successful qualification flight is another green light for the Chinese Space Agency (CNSA), which plans to send a Mars probe this summer, and is planning new lunar expeditions. If the launch went well, it should be noted that the fall of space debris in the Atlantic Ocean, which took place on May 11, is the most spectacular of the last 30 years.

Safe return

Confirmed by the 18 th spatial control squad  US Air Force, the descent proved significant as the size of debris that by the time during which their descent remained unchecked. ”  With its 17.8 tons, it is the most massive object to make an uncontrolled reentry since the Salyut-7 of 39 tons in 1991, unless one counts OV-102 Columbia in 2003  “, tweeted the astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the  Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Although the descent was uncontrolled, as with many space debris returning to Earth, it was nonetheless planned and carefully monitored. Flying over vast areas, the rocket certainly did not burn out during its atmospheric reentry, but neither did it touch inhabited areas, a possibility considered unlikely by experts. Indeed, 95% of the population would occupy only 10% of the earth’s surface, and debris of this size, although undeniably dangerous and fatal in the event of an incident, would not risk causing damage over a vast radius.

Atmospheric reentry prediction for the Long March 5 rocket (CZ-5B) © Google, SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Copernicus, Landsat image
Atmospheric reentry prediction for the Long March 5 rocket (CZ-5B) © Google, SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Copernicus, Landsat image 

A big step for China?

With this new victory, the CNSA consolidates its ambition to conquer space. “  The successful landing of the new spacecraft [sent by the Long March 5 rocket]  from high orbit demonstrates that China is seriously considering sending astronauts beyond Earth orbit – something only NASA has been able to accomplish. –  and, ultimately, send its astronauts to the Moon,  ” Andrew Jones comments for AFP.

Long March 5: with the successful launch, China targets the Moon and Mars

A key element of the Chinese space program, the Longue March 5 launcher has successfully returned to flight with the launch of a very advanced 8-ton telecommunications satellite. In 2020, this launcher will be used to launch a rover bound for Mars and another responsible for bringing back lunar samples. It will also be used to put the first element of China’s future space into orbit. 

Successful return to flight of the Long March 5 heavy launcher which took off from the Wenchang launch base (southern China) on the morning of December 27. This launcher had been immobilized on the ground since this failure, which occurred 30 months ago, due to a design flaw in a turbopump of the YF-77 engine of the first stage, which is now corrected. Note that the inaugural flight, in November 2016, did not go very well with a satellite put into a lower orbit than expected.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Company (Casc), the main manufacturer of Chinese launchers, said the mission went well with the successful deployment of the Shijian-20 telecommunications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit. . This satellite weighing around 8 tonnes must in particular test secure communications services and protocols in Q, V and laser bands. Together with the Quess quantum communications satellite, it is the most advanced telecommunications satellite ever made by China. It replaces Shijian-18, lost in the second failed flight of the Long March-5 in July 2017.

Transfer to his launch pad from the Long March 5 launcher for his third flight. © Casc
Transfer to his launch pad from the Long March 5 launcher for his third flight. © Casc

Green light for future human and robotic exploration missions in China

This launcher, slightly more powerful than the  Ariane 5 to Arianespace, is a key component of China’s space program. He is the only one capable of launching some of the most ambitious missions of this program in the fields of robotic exploration and manned flight.

This year, three other flights are already planned. The first, perhaps as early as March, with the launch of an uninhabited version of the successor to the Shenzhou, the Chinese inhabited capsule. With a capacity of 7.8 tonnes, this new generation of space vehicles will be partially reusable with a maximum launch mass of around 23 tonnes.

Two unprecedented Chinese missions

This summer will be followed by the launch of a mission to Mars with an orbit and a rover. China will use the same firing window that NASA and ESA will use to launch their own rover. At the end of the year, this launcher will again be used to launch Change 5, a mission to return lunar samples.

In 2020, Chinese plans also include the launch of Tianhe, the central and main component of the future Chinese space station. With a mass of 20 tonnes, it will be used to control the station’s navigation (correction of trajectory, attitude, etc.) and its various easements. It will serve as a place of life for Chinese taikonauts. The launch of this module is eagerly awaited. He is to kick off the in-orbit assembly of this 60- to 90-ton station. In short, a busy schedule for a launcher with only one success to his credit.

Long March 5, the biggest Chinese launcher, misses its mission

Long March 5, the launcher of future missions for the lunar program and the Chinese space station, suffered its second setback in two flights. The warning is all the more serious since, at the beginning of June, another launcher also missed its mission. A third failure of the Long March 5 could halt China’s lunar ambitions and delay the start of construction of its space station, as Philippe Coué, a specialist in the Chinese space program, explains.

The second launch of the Long March 5, China’s most powerful launcher, ended in failure. The launcher did not explode, but a problem arose before the separation of the apparently lost Shijian-18 telecommunications satellite. “An anomaly was detected during the flight”: this is the only statement from the China New Agency to explain this accident. The presence of a gas plume, unusual for its location at the level of the first stage, was noticed during the launch of the launcher. She might suggest a problem with one of the four motors on the main stage.

This failure is  “obviously very annoying for the Chinese because this launcher is that of the space station and the major lunar missions”, explains Philippe Coué, the French specialist in the Chinese space program. It comes when in November 2016 the inaugural flight was not a complete success. The satellite carried by the launcher was placed in the wrong orbit but eventually corrected by the top stage of the launcher.

On July 2, 2017, takeoff of the Long March 5 Y2 from the Wenchang space base on the southern island of Hainan, with the 7.5-ton satcom Shijian-18 on board. 
© CGTN, formerly CCTV-9

On July 2, 2017, takeoff of the Long March 5 Y2 from the Wenchang space base on the southern island of Hainan, with the 7.5-ton satcom Shijian-18 on board. © CGTN, formerly CCTV-9

Ariane 5 also suffered setbacks in its early days

This setback could slow down the Chinese space program. Indeed, the Long March 5 is the launcher of the future Chinese space station, the first elements of which are scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019, and major missions of China’s lunar program. The third flight of this launcher was to send the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission. This launch, scheduled for this year, is obviously postponed. This delay is not expected to affect the construction schedule for the Chinese space station. We will see more clearly after the third qualifying flight of the launcher. It is expected that China will  “put the package to make it work next time”. Otherwise, these two programs could be brought to a halt.

That said, Philippe Coué wants to be reassuring. “I’m not worried about the future of this pitcher. “ And recalled that before the 80 successes in a row of Ariane 5 ECA, the Arianespace launcher had  ” also experienced setbacks at the start of his career “. In June 1996, the first launch of a generic Ariane 5 ended with its explosion 40 seconds after takeoff. Six years later, the first flight of the 10-tonne version, the Ariane 5 ECA, also ended in failure, with a fault in the cooling system of the Vulcain 2 engine causing the launcher to fall three minutes after takeoff…

This failure is also the second involving a pitcher in just a few weeks. On June 8, a Chang-Zheng 3B / G2 launcher also failed its mission. The Chinese communications satellite Chinasat 9A it was carrying did not reach orbit due, it seems, to a failure during the second ignition of the third stage of the launcher. Chinasat 9A missed its orbit by some 19,440 kilometers. It found itself in  “an orbit of 193 x 16,358 km, inclined at 25.7 °, instead of 35,800 km at its peak “, we can read in  Air & Cosmos .

Is China going too fast or is it all due to a combination of unfavorable circumstances, or even to the reorganization into competing companies in the field of launchers, as Philippe Coué suggests?

The Chinese heavy launcher has taken off

Four months after the entry into service of the Long March 7 (CZ-7) launcher, China is once again talking about gunpowder. On November 3, it successfully launched a new launcher, the CZ-5. With him, the Chinese space program will experience a second wind with very ambitious missions.

Announced for the beginning of the decade 2010, the Chinese heavy launcher CZ-5 has just successfully completed its inaugural flight. It took off this Thursday, November 3 at 12:43 UT (8:43 p.m. local time), from Wenchang, the new Chinese launch site located on the island of Hainan which is the second operational launch. Indeed, this site was put into service last June with the launch of the CZ-7.

This CZ-5 (Long March 5) foreshadows a family of six modular launchers, meaning that they will share common elements to reduce manufacturing times and costs. Three of these launchers will be equipped with a cryogenic upper stage for the highest and distant orbits.

With this family, China is giving itself the means to fulfill its spatial ambitions. It is indeed the most powerful Chinese launcher ever built by the CALT ( China Academy of Launch vehicle Technology ). With a capacity of 25 tonnes in low orbit and 14 tonnes in geostationary orbit, it will be the launcher for future elements of the Chinese space station. In terms of performance, it can be compared to the Ariane 5 from Arianespace or the American Delta-IV Heavy and Atlas V.

The CZ-5 heavy launcher takes off and the successful geostationary orbiting of its passenger, the Shijian-17 experimental satellite, from the Chinese space agency CNSA, equipped with an electric motor. © CCTV

China brings its space dreams to life with the CZ-5

Its entry into service delighted the Chinese space community. And for good reason. The launch of some of the most ambitious missions depends on the entry into service of this CZ-5. Thus, in 2017, the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission will take off for the Moon. In 2018, the central module of the future space station (Tianhe 1) will be launched, and in 2020, China will go to Mars with a very ambitious mission which includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

Finally, these launchers will strengthen Chinese launch capabilities for satellites weighing more than 5 tonnes in geostationary orbit. Given the US administration’s ITAR rules that prevent China from launching a satellite if it is built from American components, this family of launchers obviously cannot overshadow Arianespace or SpaceX. On the other hand, it will allow them to acquire heavier satellites, which will strengthen its space infrastructure with the key to new applications and services.

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Written by Shraddha Diwan

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