Long March 5B’s core stage might hit the ground in uncontrolled reentry


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China does it again! The core first stage of China’s first Long March 5B launch is expected to fall back to Earth sometime tomorrow or the next day in an uncontrolled reentry, and it appears that it is large enough for its denser sections to reach the ground.

The core stage is more massive than other notable satellites that have plunged unguided back into Earth’s atmosphere in the last decade, such as China’s Tiangong 1 space lab, Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, and NASA’s UARS atmospheric research satellite. It’s about one-quarter the mass of NASA’s Skylab space station, which made headlines when it fell to Earth over Australia in 1979.

…The Long March 5B rocket body is mostly comprised of hollow propellant tanks, and much of the rocket’s structure is expected to burn up during re-entry. But some pieces, such as denser parts of the rocket’s two main engines, could survive the fall to Earth and hit the ground. [emphasis mine]

It is very hard at this moment to predict where the stage will come down, which could be as far north as New York and as far south as Wellington, New Zealand.

China is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which states as follows:

Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air or in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies. [emphasi mine]

Does China care? Apparently not. This is the second uncontrolled reentry of a large Chinese object in less than two years, since their first space station module, Tiangong-1, came crashing down in 2018. They might have had an excuse with Tiangong-1, since they lost control of it. With this core stage there are no excuses, assuming they have not made plans to bring it down in a controlled manner. We will find out in the next 48 hours.

Nonetheless, this should give us warning about their intentions in space. Though the treaty also forbids any nation from claiming territory, and they will certainly object to the Trump administration’s attempts recently to get around that restriction, I guarantee they will take possession completely of any territory they grab on the Moon or on any asteroids. It does really appear that they really don’t care about international treaties, except when it is to their benefit.

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16 comments

  • Ian C.

    “The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu islands, Mars is Huangyan island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”

    — Ye Peijian (Head of China’s Lunar Mission)

  • Phill O

    If the USA does not seal justice to the corrupt Obama administration, what right do Americans have for accusing China on any issue?

    With the deals Hunter Biden made with China, I am hoping their chickens come home to roost.

    By the way, I believe Canada has lost the right to criticize for similar reasons. The Canadian public (except western Canada) put the corrupt Trudeau government back in power.

  • Chris Lopes

    As I said in another thread, the treaty was signed by people who never really thought it would matter in their lifetimes. Now that it looks like it will, you can count on the more predatory instincts of nation states to take over. The treaty will be superceded by facts on the ground. No one is going to risk nuclear war to stop the Chinese from mining detirium at Tycho Crater.

  • Andrew_W

    We can only pray that this indifference doesn’t result in the deaths of over 100,000 Americans.

  • Dick Eagleson

    It would be bad enough if this was a singular event. But, as the core stage of the LM5B is also the second stage, which reaches orbital velocity along with the payload it is pushing, this is quite likely going to be repeated for every launch of this configuration. And, just to build their space station, the Chinese are expecting to launch two of these puppies each year in 2021 and 2022. After that, there will be more LEO missions for their new manned spacecraft and perhaps other uses as well.

    If the Chinese do not do as other spacefaring nations do – namely, design their upper stages to do controlled re-entries over deserted patches of ocean – this sort of re-entry roulette could become a relatively common occurrence. Needless to say, coming hard on the heels of Covid-19, this sort of heedless behavior is going to make China still less popular than it presently is.

    The only conceivable positive I can see coming from such a situation of on-going Chinese middle-finger-ism anent the rest of the world is that it would serve as a spur for the new U.S. Space Force to get an orbital anti-missile/satellite platform system up in a hurry with its first live-fire uses to be against rogue Chinese LM5B core stages. This would also have the happy effect of nearly eliminating any of what would otherwise likely be much wailing about “U.S. militarization/weaponization of space” from all the usual suspects. The only ones, besides the Chinese, to still complain loudly would likely be Cuba, Iran and North Korea – and maybe Venezuela if Maduro has still managed to hold on until then.

  • Ian C.

    Are we now back to the Cold War? This is straight from the Chinese state press, so you probably know how to read it. That sounds like coming from yesterday’s Soviets.

    US hawks should understand China is capable of bringing destructive consequences to them after China detects a nuclear attack from the US, warned Chinese military experts. No one wants to see that kind of doomsday tragedy, they added.

    Hu said in the past, China might have had enough nuclear power to deter the US, but now, as the US is treating China as its major or even top strategic competitor and strengthening the US arsenal, so China’s nuclear strength should not stay indifferent.

    They called on the Chinese public to remain calm as the US noticed clearly that China has enough to ensure mutually assured destruction.e

    “China-US war unlikely despite rising hostility”
    https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187947.shtml

    Quite interesting when we compete against the Chicoms in space as well. Hopefully we can profit from that conflict and advance things on our side.

  • wayne

    The obvious existential solution to this— rapidly raise the ambient air-pressure around the launch site, to 6psi.

    Minuteman III ICBM
    https://youtu.be/S-V6MZlyCqE
    2:22

  • Ian C.

    wayne,

    Nah, you’d waste a fantastic opportunity. We should embrace a long-term conflict with the Chicoms. It gives us an interesting competitor, it makes for a good and simple narrative, keeps us focused on long-term strategic goals (just think of the certainty it gives to programs and investments and career planning). The more adventurous among us can engage in (military and economic) proxy battles in exotic places (imagine all the James Bond movies that could spawn). Same on the Chinese side. We both know that it amplifies progress and drives us to the stars. We have to navigate that fine line and keep it cold and nice.

    Besides, just assume that they have planted their nukes in major NATO cities. Your button-pressing might get us just killed as well.

  • wayne

    Ian–
    if I may inquire– what age-cohort are you in? I lived through the Cold War, it was psychologically taxing on us all.
    (it’s difficult to pigeon hole me, too much….)
    :)

  • pzatchok

    China cares.

    Just not enough to worry.
    The real plan is to just buy off the victims. Its simple safe and takes no planning, worry, or real effort.

  • Ian C.

    wayne,

    what age-cohort are you in?

    In my 40s. I grew up in a place that was “designated ground zero.” Both sides would have nuked me–probably simultaneously. Even while young, I remember the atmosphere of that time, “no future” and no way out of it and all that. Luckily things didn’t go hot. Cold is good for me. I can deal with cold. Hot means that I’m dead.

  • Edward

    Ian C.,
    You wrote to wayne: “Nah, you’d waste a fantastic opportunity.

    Actually, wayne takes advantage of a better opportunity: showing the world how peaceful the U.S. is and how violent the Chinese are. Obviously, a first strike would necessarily come from the peaceful country in order to prevent the violent country from getting in the first strike. Thus proving that the U.S. is the good guy that was wronged by the Chinese.

    (I hope you realize this is sarcasm.)

  • Dick Eagleson

    We’ve been, to some degree, in a Cold War with China ever since Mao kicked Chiang Kai-shek off the mainland in 1949. It has waxed and waned over the years – and was overshadowed by the simultaneous Cold War with the Soviets until 1989-91 – but never entirely went away.

    The Chinese have been ramping up the smack talk and saber-rattling again for some time, but especially since Xi took over. With Russia having also backslid into its erstwhile anti-U.S. hostility, we now have a simultaneous pair of Cold Wars again.

    It is characteristic of externally aggressive regimes that they imagine rival powers must certainly be plotting to do them sudden dirt by surprise – it’s what they would do, after all. Domestic propaganda to this effect prepares their populations for later claims of “provocations” when their next land-grab gets underway. Bush-league autocrats, like the erstwhile junta in Argentina, do this too – it’s not just the big-leaguers like Russia and China.

    Such regimes are metastable. Small events can quickly cascade and bring them down. The best thing to do is maintain forces sufficient to cost-effectively minimize the damage such regimes can do, isolate them and wait them out. Time is not on their side. Russia has a declining population, declining exports and no real prospects of reversing either trend. China will be dealing with the loss of a sizable fraction of its Western supply chain-oriented manufacturing base and the world-leading rapid aging of its population and its near cessation of growth.

    We sustained simultaneous Cold Wars with Russia and China of several decades duration. China has now effectively switched places with Russia as the more formidable of the two opponents, but we can certainly sustain another pair of such Cold Wars for the two or three additional decades that seem like a worst-case upper limit on how long either or both nations can continue to constitute serious menaces to the U.S. and the world in general.

    Giving the U.S. Space Force some non-trivial teeth as quickly as possible is just one part of re-establishing a containment posture anent both Russia and China. And, as an added side benefit, keep China from treating the rest of the world like it has long treated its own interior anent “disposal” of spent rocket stages.

  • Rose

    Looks like it came down over the Eastern Atlantic, not far off the coast of Mauritania.

    Jonathan McDowell:
    * https://twitter.com/planet4589/status/1259909543762563072

    “CZ-5B core stage reentry confirmed down at 1533 UTC, off the west coast of Africa”
    and
    “And the TIP message is out, showing reentry at 1534 UTC at location 20W 20N, just before the ground track passed over Nouakchott.”
    and
    Q: “Is that the point of EI or the projected impact point? In other words, should we expect debris to have fallen in the Atlantic, North of Cape Verde, or could the footprint have reached Mauritania (or beyond)?”
    A: “Good point. That is the 80 km altitude I believe, so indeed some debris could have reached the Nouakchott vicinity, at about 3:40pm local time. Worth watching out for reports.”
    and
    Q: “by about how many minutes did it miss plopping onto NYC?”
    A: “About 13”
    C: “That would have been epic for the sinoamerican relationship”

  • john hare

    @Rose,
    13 minutes from being able to claim a few thousand instantaneous Covid 19 deaths?

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    From Eagleson:

    “Giving the U.S. Space Force some non-trivial teeth as quickly as possible is just one part of re-establishing a containment posture anent both Russia and China.”

    The cargo version of Starship would make an excellent space cruiser. Just load up the cargo bay with Rods from God and other weaponry.

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