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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