For the second time in two launches, the 21-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket is about to make uncontrolled re-entry, with a mass large enough that some part of it is certain to hit the ground.
Where and when the new Long March 5B stage will land is impossible to predict. The decay of its orbit will increase as atmospheric drag brings it down into more denser. The speed of this process depends on the size and density of the object and variables include atmospheric variations and fluctuations, which are themselves influenced by solar activity and other factors.
The high speed of the rocket body means it orbits the Earth roughly every 90 minutes and so a change of just a few minutes in reentry time results in reentry point thousands of kilometers away.
The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area.
The previous core stage hit the Atlantic Ocean six days after launch in May 2020. Had it come down fifteen to thirty minutes earlier it would have come down on U.S. soil, possibly even on top of the New York metropolitan area.
China’s design for this rocket means that every single launch will result in similar potential disasters. They cannot restart the core stage’s engines after cut-off, so that once it has delivered its payload it is nothing more than a very big and uncontrolled brick that has to hit the ground somewhere.
This is a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty, which China is a signatory. The treaty makes signatories liable for any damage from an uncontrolled re-entry, and requires them to take action to prevent such events from occurring.
China it appears doesn’t care much about the treaties it signs. The first time could be rung up to a mistake. The second time is intentional and tells us that this country will not honor any of its obligations anywhere else, if it decides it can get away with it.
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