China: We like dumping out-of-control rockets on your head!

China has now signaled that it intends to ramp up the launch rate of its Long March 5B rocket, its most powerful rocket but also a rocket with a core stage that falls to Earth out-of-control after each launch, risking injury and damage to others.

Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told Chinese media that the the Long March 5B, designed for launches to low Earth orbit, would be used together with the Yuanzheng upper stage series to launch multiple satellites for constellations.

Though not clearly stated, the launcher and YZ-2 combination could be used to help deliver high numbers of satellites into orbit for the planned national “guowang” satellite internet megaconstellation.

It is very possible that with the addition of an upper stage, engineers could reconfigure the rocket so that the first stage is shut down and separated earlier so that it immediately falls into an ocean drop zone following launch. At the same time, making sure that drop zone is always over the ocean might be difficult for some polar launches.

What China really has to do is to upgrade the engines on the core stage so that they can be restarted. At present these engines can only be started once, and once shut down they are dead. If the stage reaches orbit — which it has done on all previous launches — there is then no way to control it, and since that orbit is unstable the stage crashes to Earth, who knows where, shortly thereafter. With restartable engines the stage could easily be de-orbited properly.

China has expressed utter contempt for the complaints of other nations about these out-of-control crashes, claiming the risk is infinitesimal. While quite small, it still exists.

Ted Muelhaupt of the Aerospace Corporation said in July that the odds of debris from the reentry following the launch of the Wentian module ranged from one in 230 to one in 1,000. This was more than an order of magnitude greater than internationally accepted casualty risk threshold for the uncontrolled reentry of rockets of one in 10,000, stated in a 2019 report issued by the U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.

Small or not, China is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, and every out-of-control crash has been a violation of that treaty. This behavior clearly makes China a rogue nation, not to be trusted.

Long March 5B core stage crashes in Pacific

According to a tweet from the U.S. Space Force, the out-of-control core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket has come down in the Pacific Ocean sometime around 4 am (Mountain).

#USSPACECOM can confirm the People’s Republic of China Long March 5B #CZ5B rocket re-entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean at 4:01am MDT/10:01 UTC on 11/4.

The exact location has not yet been revealed, nor do we know yet if any pieces landed on any habitable islands. The odds however of the re-entry causing any damage or injury now appears nil, which is a fortunate thing considering the risks China asked everyone else to take.

Crash prediction for Long March 5B core stage narrows

Crash prediction
Click for original image.

List of the largest uncontrolled re-entries

This morning’s report by the Aerospace Corporation has narrowed the crash time and location for China’s out-of-control Long March 5B core stage to six orbits, about 8 hours, on November 4, 2022, with the prediction centered over a point in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The company’s graphic to the right shows the orbital tracks. Note that this prediction puts many habitable locations under risk, including parts of the United States, Spain, Africa, and Australia.

Since the crash is now expected tomorrow, expect further updates later today.

The second graphic to the right has also been created by the Aerospace Corporation. It shows the top 20 largest man-made objects that have fallen out-of-control from orbit. Four of the top six were dropped on the world by China, all within the past two years. All but one of the others occurred prior to 1987, before the U.S. and Russia took positive action to prevent such things. The one exception, Phobos-Grunt, was an unexpected failure, its rocket putting it into an unstable orbit rather than sending it to Mars.

China, like the U.S. and Russia, has signed the Outer Space Treaty. That treaty requires each signatory to control the objects it puts in space, and makes it liable for any damage caused by such objects. The U.S. and Russia have both tried very hard to abide by that treaty. China however has thumbed its nose at it.

We must wonder what China will do if this core stage kills someone when it comes down tomorrow.

The crash of China’s Long March 5B core stage: first rough prediction

Long March 5B reentry prediction as of 11/2/22

The Aerospace Corporation has made its first rough estimate of the uncontrolled reentry of the core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket that launched the Mengtian module to its Tiangong-3 space station on October 31st.

The prediction at present is very uncertain, covering about 20 orbits (about 30 hours) centered on November 5, 2021 over the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Brazil, as shown in the graphic to the right. Though this prediction will eventually narrow down to less than one full orbit, it will never be possible to predict in advance the core stage’s exact impact point. As the margin of error shrinks, the predictions will come more frequently.

At this moment, however, the core stage’s orbit crosses over most of the habitable areas of the Earth, and thus all those regions are under threat.

China’s Long March 5B rocket with new space station module is now at launchpad

China’s Long March 5B rocket had now been rolled out to its launchpad, carrying the new Mengtian module for China’s Tiangong-3 space station.

The launch is presently scheduled for October 31, 2022. Assuming China has not upgraded the engines on the rocket’s core stage, that stage will tumble back to Earth, uncontrolled, sometime in the following week. Since it is large enough to survive re-entry, it will hit the ground, thus threatening every habitable location under its orbital path. By allowing this to happen China violates the Outer Space Treaty, to which it is a signatory.

Nor will this likely be the last time China does this. Though this module completes China’s station, as presently designed, this will not be the last Long March 5B launch. China plans to use it put its Hubble-class space telescope into orbit, as well as other things.

September 5, 2022 Space quick links

All courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay.

Long March 5B pieces crash near villages in Malaysia and Indonesia

Several days after the July 30th uncontrolled de-orbit of China’s Long March 5B core stage locals in both Malaysia and Indonesia are finding large sections, some of which apparently fell close to villages.

A charred ring of metal about five metres in diameter was found on Sunday in Kalimantan, Indonesia, according to a Malaysian news outlet. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the metal appeared to be the exact size of the Chinese rocket’s core stage.

…“It looks like the end cap of a rocket stage propellant tank,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s from the rocket … it’s in the right place at the right time and looks like it is from the right kind of rocket.”

The article at the link also describes several other incidences, including one in which two families were evacuated when a piece landed near their home. I have embedded the video of one news report below, showing several of these impacts, many of which which apparently hit the ground hard enough to create craters several feet deep.

The article contains a big error, stating “there was no international law” forbidding the uncontrolled crash of such debris, but this is false. The Outer Space Treaty requires all nations to take action to avoid such incidents, and makes them liable to any damage. China is violating this treaty with every Long March 5B launch.
» Read more

Long March 5B stage falls to Earth near Malaysia

New data now suggests that the core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket that it launched on July 24th has crashed to Earth somewhere off the coast of the island of Borneo, Malaysia.

As of writing, there is no indication that any debris hit land, though this could change.

In violation of the Outer Space Treaty, China very clearly has done nothing to upgrade the Long March 5B since it dumped a core stage uncontrolled last year. It very clearly can do nothing to prevent this from happening in October, when the Long March 5B lifts off again to carry into orbit the last planned module for the Tiangong station.

In other words, China cannot be relied upon to honor any treaty it signs. It signs the treaty, but then willfully ignores it if it thinks that is to its best interest.

Long March 5B stage reentry window narrowed to two hours

Long March 5B impact prediction

The Aerospace Corporation has now narrowed the window in which the out-of-control core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket will crash back to Earth to about two hours, centered over the Pacific west of the United States at in the early morning of July 31st.

China appears to have dodged a bullet once again. The window is now only a little more than one orbit long, so we now know the impact point for the five to nine tons that will survive re-entry is mostly over water.

Long March 5B core stage crash window narrows to 12 hours

Predicted re-entry as of July 29, 2022

The Aerospace Corporation has now narrowed its predicted window for the uncontrolled re-entry of the core stage of China’s Long March 5B, launched on July 24th, to twelve hours, centered over southeast China in the early morning hours of July 31st.

The window still covers almost all inhabitable places on Earth. It will also narrow considerably in the next 24 hours, though not enough to make a reliable precise prediction until just prior to re-entry.

Just remember: China will repeat this farce in October, when it launches the next module to its Tiangong space station.

Update on Long March 5B core stage crash prediction

Prediction of Long March 5B crash

The Aerospace Corporation today adjusted its prediction for the uncontrolled crash of the core stage from the Long March 5B rocket that China launched on July 24th.

According to the new prediction, the core stage will return to Earth during a 32 hour period centered on the early morning hours of July 31st above the Middle East.

The map to the right shows this. As you can see, at present the uncertainty of the prediction means the core stage could still crash almost anywhere.

That China has still done nothing to adjust the stage’s orbit now almost certainly confirms it can do nothing. This further confirms that in the year-plus since its last Long March 5B launch in May ’21, it did nothing to fix this fundamental problem. Moreover, this is the rocket’s third launch, all of which involved a core stage crashing uncontrollably. Each launch was thus a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty, of which China is a signatory.

Another Long March 5B launch is scheduled for later this summer, to launch the last planned module to China’s Tiangong space station. Expect another violation of the treaty then as well.

Tentative crash date for Long March 5B core stage: July 31st

Predicted crash path of Long March 5B core stage
Click for full image.

Engineers from the Aerospace Corporation have now made the first preliminary calculations and determined that the core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket that launched July 24th will crash to Earth uncontrolled on July 31, 2022, give or take one day.

The map to the right, reduced to post here, shows all the orbits during that 48 hour period. Note that, except for most of Europe, almost all the high population regions of the globe are in the crash zone.

This prediction is very tentative, and will change as the core stage’s orbit evolves in the next few weeks. It also could change entirely if China has updated the rocket’s engines so they can be restarted at least once to de-orbit the stage properly, as it has hinted it could do. If however the orbit begins to decay without any action by China, then we will know those hints were lies, and that China is once again violating the Outer Space Treaty by acting with willful negligence to threaten harm to others with one of its launches.

Long March 5B core stage from July 24th launch remains in orbit

According to data from the U.S. Space Command, the core stage of the Long March 5B rocket used to launch China’s next large module for its Tiangong space station is still in orbit, with no indication yet that China has the ability to safely de-orbit it over the ocean in a controlled manner.

From Jonathan McDowell’s Twitter feed:

Two objects cataloged from the CZ-5B launch: 53239 / 2022-085A in a 166 x 318 km x 41.4 deg orbit, 53240 / 2022-085B in a 182 x 299 km x 41.4 deg orbit. Orbital epoch of ~1200 UTC confirms that the inert 21t rocket core stage remains in orbit and was not actively deorbited.

In all previous Long March 5B launches the core stage reached orbit, deployed its payload, and then crashed back to Earth uncontrolled a few weeks later because its engines could not be restarted. Since it is large, pieces hit the ground, but fortunately nothing landed in habitable areas. In one case however had the return occurred fifteen minutes earlier it would have landed in the New York City metropolitan area.

There were comments made during the launch countdown by Chinese officials suggesting the stage’s engine can now be restarted to allow it to be de-orbited properly, but if so there is as yet no indication that this has happened. If anything, the presence of these objects in orbit suggest otherwise.

It is also possible Chinese engineers are doing further orbital tests with both objects, and will de-orbit them properly in the next week or so. That China conducted a series of static fire tests of this stage’s engines prior to launch strongly suggested that they can now control its re-entry.

Since China won’t say, however, we can only wait and watch.

China successfully launches new large module to its Tiangong space station

Tiangong-3, completed
Tiangong-3 station, when completed

The new colonial movement: China on July 24, 2022 (China time) has successfully used its Long March 5B rocket to put into orbit its Wentian module, the next large section that will dock with the Tiangong station in the next day or so.

According to one announcer, the core stage will not crash to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, as in previous Long March 5B launches. However, this is China, and his statement cannot be taken at face value. We shall find out in the coming days if this is so, or whether the core stage will be a threat to habitable areas as its orbit decays.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

32 SpaceX
24 China
9 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 45 to 24 in the national rankings, as well as the entire globe combined 45 to 40.

Watch China’s launch of next big module to its Tiangong space station

The launch of the next big module to China’s Tiangong space station, dubbed Wentian, is scheduled for 2:15 am (eastern) tonight, using its Long March 5B rocket.

The live stream is embedded below if you want to watch. It begins at about an hour before launch.

I have added a live stream in English, below the first. One detail of importance that this broadcast has already revealed: According to one technical expert being interviewed, the core stage will not crash to Earth uncontrolled. They will be able to bring it down where and when they want.
» Read more

Long March 5B rolls to launchpad, carrying China’s next large space station module

Long March 5B being rolled to launch site
Long March 5B being rolled to launch site

China’s big Long March 5B rocket was successfully rolled to its launch site yesterday in preparation for a July 24, 2022 launch that will put China’s next large space station module, Wentian, into orbit.

The Wentian module, with a launch weight near 44,000 pounds (20 metric tons), will dock with the Tianhe core module on China’s Tiangong station in low Earth orbit. Chinese astronauts Chen Dong, Liu Yang, and Cai Xuzhe living on the Tiangong complex will monitor Wentian’s arrival, then become the first crew members to float into the station’s new module.

The launch this weekend will add the second of three large pressurized modules needed to complete the initial construction of the Tiangong space station. The Tianhe core module launched on a Long March 5B rocket in April 2021, and Chinese ground teams are preparing the Mengtian module for launch on a Long March 5B rocket in October.

The big question mark however concerning this upcoming launch is the central core stage of the Long March 5B, seen in the picture above surrounded by four strap-on boosters with Wentian stacked on top. In all previous Long March 5B launches, that core stage reached orbit, deployed its payload, and then crashed to Earth uncontrolled because its main engines could not be restarted. Will this core stage do the same?

The name of this particular Long March 5B also carries with it a new suffix, “Y3”. In the past when the Chinese added letters to a name it was because the rocket had been changed or upgraded in some manner. Furthermore, in March China did some static fire engine tests of what were suggested to be new engines for the core stage.

Developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the engine is designed for the core stage of the Long March-5 carrier rocket series, which will be used to launch two lab modules of China’s orbiting Tiangong space station this year.

The long-range test, lasting 520 seconds, has verified the reliability of the engine, and there will be more than 20 experimental tasks that the rocket engine will undergo to further test its performance, the company disclosed.

Based on this meager information, it appears that China might have upgraded the core stage’s engines so they can be restarted and the stage’s de-orbit can be controlled so it crashes over the ocean, not over some random point of inhabited land. We shall have to wait until after the launch on July 24th to find out.

China begins preparing Long March 5B for launch of next space station module

The new colonial movement: The Long March 5B rocket that will launch in July the next large module for China’s Tiangong space station, dubbed Wentian, has arrived at the launch site.

China’s Long March-5B Y3 rocket, which will launch lab module Wentian for the country’s space station, arrived on Sunday at the launch site in the southern island province of Hainan. The rocket, along with the Wentian lab module already transported to the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, will be assembled and tested at the launch site, announced the China Manned Space Agency. [emphasis mine]

In all past launches of the Long March-5B the core first stage has crashed to Earth in an uncontrolled manner because its engine could not be restarted after it shut down. The highlighted “Y3” added to the rocket’s name above suggests China might have fixed this. Previous Long March-5B rockets used YF-77 engines. Adding Y3 to the name — which generally follows China’s system for naming its engines — could mean they will now be able to control the core stage’s de-orbit. This speculation is further strengthened by a previous report that China was testing a new engine for the core stage that implied it was restartable.

If so, China will avoid the kind of bad press it received with previous Long March 5B launches. It will also put it back in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, which it violated with each past core stage crash.

More Chinese space junk crashes in India

It appears that debris from an upper stage of a Chinese Long March 3B rocket, launched in September ’21, fell in India on May 12, 2022.

Local media reported that the objects crashed with “loud thuds that shook the ground” in Gujarat. There were no casualties or property damage, according to The Indian Express. The crashed objects were all discovered within a 15-kilometer radius, and among them was a black metal ball weighing around five kilograms, the newspaper said.

Though the sources objects have not been identified with certainty, they look like inner tanks from a rocket, and the only object that reentered the atmosphere on this date and also had an orbit that crossed this part of India was the Long March 3B.

This is second time in less than a month that debris from an abandoned Chinese upper stage has crashed in India. Both are thought to have come from Long March 3Bs. More important, both now prove that China has no protocols when it launches these rockets to de-orbit the upper stages in a controlled manner.

Stay tuned for more Chinese space junk heading your way. In the next seven months it will launch two Long March 5B rockets, the large core stage of which reaches orbit. In all of the previous 5B launches, that stage — big enough to hit the Earth — then quickly fell back in an uncontrolled and unpredictable manner. Fortunately, each time it crashed in the ocean, though the May 2020 deorbit ended up with some debris landing near villages in Africa.

Recent tests of the 5B’s core stage’s engine have suggested that China might have redesigned it to allow it to be restarted, which would allow them to control its deorbit. This fact however has not been confirmed.

China tests rocket engine for the next Long March 5B launches

China’s state-run press today revealed that a full duration test has been successfully completed of the rocket engine that will be used by the core first stage of the Long March 5B rocket that will launch the next two modules for China’s Tiangong space station.

Developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the engine is designed for the core stage of the Long March-5 carrier rocket series, which will be used to launch two lab modules of China’s orbiting Tiangong space station this year.

The long-range test, lasting 520 seconds, has verified the reliability of the engine, and there will be more than 20 experimental tasks that the rocket engine will undergo to further test its performance, the company disclosed.

Though this short press release does not say, it implies that this new engine is restartable, something that on previous launches of the Long March 5B was not possible for the core stage. This lack meant that once the core stage lifted and deployed its payload into orbit, it no longer had an engine that could control it. It would within weeks crash to Earth, threatening many habitable areas around the globe. This lack also resulted in a lot of very bad press for China.

If this new engine is restartable, it means that China will be able to de-orbit it in a controlled manner, over the ocean. If so, hallelujah! It means China will finally be honoring its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.

If not, than China will continue to prove that it is an unreliable and dangerous player on the world stage.

China plans more than 50 launches in 2022

China today released what it calls a blue paper outlining its space plans for 2022, predicting it will launch more than fifty times while completing assembly of its Tiangong space station.

The Shenzhou-14 astronauts will be aboard Tianhe core module for the arrival of the 20-metric-ton-plus Wentian and Mengtian modules, both now expected to launch in the second half of the year, later than earlier tentative times of June and August respectively. The module launches will complete the T-shaped orbital outpost. Tianzhou-5 will launch ahead of Shenzhou-15, both scheduled for late in the year.

Work on the Long March 2F, Long March 5B and Long March 7 rockets for launching Shenzhou, space station module and cargo missions respectively continued during the recent Lunar New Year holiday, according to CASC [China’s space agency]. The module launches will be followed closely, partly due to the significance of the missions, but also because of the use of the Long March 5B, the two previous launches of which saw the large first stages make high-profile uncontrolled reentries which sparked acrimony.

The rocket maker, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), says it has further optimized the two new Long March 5B rockets to ensure mission success without providing details. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words, as well as the delay in launch of these two modules, suggests China might have done some work on its Long March 5B to control the de-orbit of its core stage.

China also says the year will also include the first six month long mission on Tiangong, as well as the first arrival of two crews to the station.

My present count of all proposed launches for 2022 is just under 200, more than double the average number of launches (89) completed annually since the launch of Sputnik. U.S. companies alone right now are predicting 100 launches. While all of these numbers are uncertain, it looks like ’22 will be a banner year for space exploration.

A review of China’s space program

Link here. The article covers China’s achievements in ’21, then reviews the status of its rocket development program. The key quote to me however was this, describing the upcoming plans for the assembly of China’s space station:

In 2022, China is expected to launch two more crew rotations to the Tiangong station using its Shenzhou spacecraft. The first, Shenzhou 14, is expected in May, while the second one will launch in November. Both missions will launch aboard Chang Zheng [Long March] 2F/G rockets. Two more modules for the space station are also planned to launch in the course of the year.

These new modules are the laboratory cabin modules (LCMs). The first is named Wentian, meaning Quest for the Heavens, while the second is Mengtian, or Dreaming of the Heavens. Both will launch on Chang Zheng 5B rockets, with Wentian currently scheduled to lift off in May or June, with Mengtian planned to launch in August or September.

This means that — assuming China has not reworked the design of its Long March 5B rocket — a large out-of-control core stage will be crashing to Earth in the the spring and late summer.

Long March 5B core stage falls to Earth

Around 10:15 pm (Eastern) the Long March 5B core stage reentered the atmosphere over the Arabian Peninsula, with pieces landing in the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives to the southwest of India.

China has attempted to minimize its behavior here, claiming that most of the rocket burned up and that the chance of any damage was low. Big deal! If you are a responsible spacefaring nation you don’t build rockets that are designed to do this.

Remember, at least three more Long March 5B launches are scheduled in the next the years. As presently designed all will dump that core stage somewhere on Earth in an entirely uncontrolled manner.

Long March 5B booster reentry prediction narrows again

Long March 5B landing prediction, May 7, 2021
Click for original.

The Aerospace Corporation has once again narrowed the reentry window for the 21-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, launched on April 29th, as shown by the map above. The window is now only eleven hours long, centered over a point in the Indian Ocean at just before midnight on May 8th. The yellow tracks indicate its path after that centerpoint, while the blue lines show its path prior to it. Tick marks show five minute intervals.

The last orbit as shown by this prediction puts it over the following land areas. If the core stage crashes 5 to 20 minutes early, it would land anywhere from Spain to Africa. Another fifteen minutes earlier and Florida and Mexico would be in the landing zone. If it lands 45 to 50 minutes later, it will land somewhere on the continental United States.

China however might be lucky with this booster. The centerpoint of the prediction has definitely begun to stabilize around the Indian Ocean.

With future boosters, who knows? China plans at least three more Long March 5B launches, two in ’22 to launch modules for its space station, and one in ’24 to launch a Hubble-class space telescope to fly in formation with that space station. We shall see this same Keystone cop charade on all three flights, with the core stage tumbling out-of-control and falling back to Earth to crash somewhere that cannot be predicted.

No plans to shoot down Long March 5B booster; revised prediction

The Biden administration will make no attempt to shoot down the 21-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, according to the Defense secretary Lloyd Austin:

At this point we don’t have a plan to shoot the rocket down. We’re hopeful it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone. Hopefully in the ocean or someplace like that. I think this speaks to the fact that for those of us who operate in the space domain that there should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode and make sure that we take those kinds of things into consideration as we plan and conduct operations.

Meanwhile, the predicted reentry window has shrunk again, to 16 hours, and shifted so that its centerpoint is now over Egypt, as shown on this map by the Aerospace Corporation:
» Read more

Long March 5B booster reentry prediction still centers on evening of May 8th off coast of Australia

Prediction of Long March 5B booster reentry
Click for full image.

Today’s most recent prediction by the Aerospace Corporation for the reentry of China’s out-of-control Long March 5B 21-ton core stage is still centered at 10:34 pm (Eastern) on May 8th, with a total uncertainty of 21 hours. As the company notes,

The prediction is currently holding steady for Saturday evening for the US, and the error bars are shrinking.

As shown on the map to the right, the centerpoint is just off the southwest coast of Australia. However, with a window 21 hours long, the booster could still come down in a large number of high population locations.

Revised Long March 5B crash window

Aerospace's revised Long March 5B crash window
Click for original image.

The map above, reduced and adjusted to post here, shows today’s revised estimate by the Aerospace Corporation for where and when the 21-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, launched on April 29th, will hit the ground. The reentry window has now narrowed to 22 hours, and is centered on May 8th at 10:29 pm (Eastern) over the Indian Ocean, just off the southwest coast of Australia. The yellow orbital tracks are after that centerpoint, while the blue are before. The tick marks indicate five minute intervals.

Expect these updates to come more frequently and continue to narrow in the next two days as the orbit continues to decay. Right now, if the stage comes down a little later than predicted there is ample opportunity for it to hit either Australia or the United States. Should it come down earlier, it right now could hit either Africa or Spain.

Note that the chances of this stage doing any real harm is quite slim, even it if lands on a populated area. It will break up during reentry so that any pieces that hit the ground will be much smaller. If anything, the debris will resemble somewhat the wreckage that fell when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over the U.S. in 2003 during its return to Earth. The impact of that wreckage injured no one on the ground, even as it did kill seven astronauts. Expect the same with China’s core stage.

The issue here is not the danger, but China’s gross negligence and violation of its treaty obligations in launching this rocket knowing the core stage was going to do this. No more Long March 5B launches can occur without them fixing the problem so that future core stages can be brought back to Earth in a controlled and safe manner.

Long March 5B crash estimate as of today

May 3rd prediction of Long March 5B crash
Click for full image.

According to estimates this morning by the Aerospace Corporation, the 21-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket will come crashing down to Earth sometime on May 10th, plus or minus 41 hours.

Their map to the right illustrates all the orbits that will take place during that time period, which in turn shows all the possible places that core stage might land. For example, though the center point in that time period puts the stage down in the Pacific west of South America, should it go down just a little more than two orbits later it will then be crossing over the entire continental United States, with even a very slim chance it could land on my own house in Arizona! If it should come down a little early instead it could land on Europe, the Middle East, India, or Australia.

This estimate is very very uncertain, and will be refined in the days ahead, though because of the chaotic nature of decaying orbits it will be impossible to refine it to less than half an orbit, even on the day of its return.

Nor can anyone do anything about it. Large sections of this big piece of hardware is going to hit the ground in an uncontrolled manner. And China, a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty which forbids exactly this sort of uncontrolled reentry, launched it anyway.

China’s 21-ton Long March 5B core stage to make uncontrolled re-entry

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.

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites; China launches Tianhe station module

Twas a busy evening. SpaceX successfully put 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit using its Falcon 9 rocket, with the first stage successfully completing its seventh flight, landing safely on the drone ship in the Atlantic.

China in turn successfully used its Long March 5B rocket to place in orbit the core module, dubbed Tianhe, of its planned space station. This is the first of eleven launches in the next two years to assemble the station’s initial configuration, including cargo and manned missions along the way.

The SpaceX live stream is at the link. I have embedded China’s English language live stream of the Tianhe launch below the fold. The launch is about 52 minutes in.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

12 SpaceX
10 China
7 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 17 to 10 in the national rankings.
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The upcoming first launch of China’s space station

The Chinese Space Station

The new colonial movement: Later this month, on April 29th, China will use its Long March 5B rocket to launch the first module of its space station, dubbed Tianhe, thus beginning the assembly over the next year or so of their first space station, with ten more launches planned in that short time span.

The T-shape, 100-metric-ton CSS [Chinese Space Station] will comprise three major modules: the 18-meter-long core module, called Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), and two 14.4-meter-long experiment modules, called Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), which will be permanently attached to either side of the core. As the station’s management and control center, Tianhe can accommodate three astronauts for stays of up to six months. Visiting astronauts and cargo spaceships will hook up to the core module from opposite ends. Both it and Wentian are equipped with robotic arms on the outside, and Mengtian has an airlock for the maintenance and repair of experiments mounted on the exterior of the station. Tianhe has a total of five docking ports, which means an extra module can be added for future expansion. The station is designed to operate for more than 10 years.

Much of the work on this station will be similar to the scientific research done on ISS. One additional science project linked to the station however is far more impressive:
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