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.

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.
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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 launches three astronauts to Tiangong station

The new colonial movement: Using its Long March 2F rocket, China has successfully launched three astronauts into orbit for a six month mission to its Tiangong space station.

The crew will be transported to the station in China’s Shenzhou capsule, docking about six hours after launch. During this mission China will also launch the last two large modules planned for the station, completing its initial construction by the end of the year.

I have embedded the live stream below the fold, cued to just before launch.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

22 SpaceX
18 China
8 Russia
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 31 to 18 in the national rankings, as well as the entire globe combined, 31 to 29.

» Read more

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.

Chinese scientists plant seeds bred on Tiangong space station

The new colonial movement: Chinese scientists have now planted on Earth some of the 12,000 seeds that were bred on China’s Tiangong space station for six months and brought back to Earth in April.

The seeds, including alfalfa, oats and fungi, were selected by multiple research institutions last year. They were brought back to Earth by the Shenzhou-13 on April 16. Space breeding refers to the process of exposing seeds to cosmic radiation and microgravity during a spaceflight mission to mutate seed genes and then send them back to Earth to generate new species.

The goal is to see which seeds survive best in the harsh environment of space, which would thus make them better candidates for transport to other planets for planting.

While some of the results of this research will be published, much will not. China tends to keep what it learns close to the vest.

China launches Tianzhou freighter to space station

The new colonial movement: China today successfully used its Long March 7 rocket to launch a new Tianzhou unmanned cargo freighter to its Tiangong space station.

The cargo is for the station’s next crew, scheduled to launch in June for a six month mission, during which two new large modules will be added to the station.

The launch took place at China’s sea coast Wenchang spaceport, so its expendable lower stages all fell harmlessly in the ocean.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

18 SpaceX
15 China
6 Russia
3 Rocket Lab

U.S. private enterprise still leads China 26 to 15 in the national rankings, as well as the entire world combined 26 to 24.

China’s astronauts to return after six month mission

The new colonial movement: The three astronauts who have been on China’s Tiangong space station are about to return to Earth after completing a record six month mission.

Airspace closure notices indicate that Shenzhou-13 will return to Earth between 9:35 and 10:05 p.m. Eastern April 15 (9:35-10:05 local time, April 16) following departure from Tianhe.

The Shenzhou return capsule is planned to set down in a designated landing zone near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia.

Previous landings occurred in the grasslands of Siziwang, Inner Mongolia. Factors for the change include increasing population density around Siziwang, and the need to optimize for astronaut recovery as the duration of China’s spaceflight missions increases.

I suspect the change in landing location to inside China is also for security reasons. Tensions created by the Ukraine War has probably made China’s leaders reluctant to have their astronauts land anywhere but in China itself.

The article also outlines the upcoming plans for the next crew to Tiangong, which will be on board during the arrival of the station’s next two large modules.

The three-person Shenzhou-14 crew will be aboard the Tianhe space module for the arrival of two new modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, which will complete the three-module, T-shaped Chinese space station, later in the year.

Both of these large modules will be launched by China’s Long March 5B rocket. The previous launches of this rocket resulted in the crash of an out-of-control core stage because once it reached orbit it could not restart its engines to control its de-orbit. Though there have been hints that China may have upgraded the core stage’s engines, we do not know yet for certain if that includes the ability to restart it. If not, China should once again be prepared for some bad press as it threatens populated areas worldwide with these stages.

Rogozin proposes Russia launch modules to China’s space station

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, yesterday proposed in an interview on China’s state-run press that Russia is eager to discuss the possibility of attaching its future space station modules to China’s Tiangong space station.

“As for the Chinese space station, we can discuss construction of some joint modules as well. In order to be friends in space, friendship must first be established back on Earth, and Russia and China are friends on Earth,” Rogozin said. He opined that Russia and China “can be together” in human spaceflights as well.

Whether China will agree is in some ways besides the point. The real question is whether Russia has the capability to do this. Though China and Russia already have a joint agreement to develop a permanent base on the Moon, China is carrying most of the load. Moreover, Russia’s new modules for ISS are decades behind schedule. Whether they will now even be launched to ISS is questionable. Adding these Russian modules to China’s space station will require some major engineering discussions, as neither Tiangong nor the modules were designed for such a thing.

I suspect the two countries will work out an agreement that they will announce with great fanfare. I also expect China will insist that at no time will it be dependent on Russian technology, so that if Russia is delayed or can’t get it done, China will not be hampered in any way. This is essentially their deal for building the lunar base.

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.

China tests space station robot arm

The new colonial movement: The Chinese state-run press yesterday reported that it has successfully used the robot arm on its Tiangong space station to move a Tianzhou freighter from one point to another.

After being unlocked and separated from the space station core module Tianhe, Tianzhou-2 was moved into a predetermined position by the robotic arm. The arm then reversed the maneuvers to bring the spacecraft back to its original position. Tianzhou-2 re-docked with the core module and completed locking.

The test preliminarily verified the feasibility of using the mechanical arm to conduct a space station module transfer, confirmed the effectiveness of relevant technologies, and laid a foundation for the subsequent in-orbit assembly and construction of the country’s space station, said the CMSA [Chinese Manned Space Agency].

The news report did not indicate whether this operation was run from ground control, or by the astronauts on board Tiangong. Either way, it apparently clears the way for the arrival of two more large modules, planned for launch later this year, suggesting that the arm will be used in some manner to position those modules prior to docking.

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.

China attacks SpaceX, claiming Starlink satellites threaten its space station

China earlier this month submitted a complaint against SpaceX to the UN, claiming that the company’s Starlink satellites have twice forced it to adjust the orbit of its space station to avoid a collusion.

The note said the incidents “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station”.

“The U.S. … ignores its obligations under international treaties, posing a serious threat to the lives and safety of astronauts,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing on Tuesday.

The story became news today because there was suddenly a flurry of outrage against SpaceX on Chinese social media, responding to Lijian’s statement, with much of it very likely astroturf posts prompted by the Chinese government itself.

This announcement likely signals that China is getting ready to launch the next module to that station. During that launch the large core stage of the Long March 5B rocket will reach orbit, but only for a few days. It will then crash uncontrolled somewhere on Earth. The Chinese government knows it is going to get a lot of bad press because of this fact, and is likely making this complaint to try to excuse its own bad actions.

The two issues however are not the same. Satellite orbits are very predictable, and any maneuvers required by China to avoid Starlink satellites were very routine. Moreover, if necessary SpaceX can adjust its own satellite orbits to avoid a collusion.

The crash of the Long March 5B core stage however is due entirely to a bad design that does not allow for any controlled maneuvers. Once the stage’s engines shut down after delivering the station module into orbit, they cannot be restarted, as designed. The stage must fall to Earth in an unpredictable manner, threatening every spot it flies over during that orbital decay.

At this time the actual launch date for that Long March 5B launch, carrying the next station module, has not been announced. The astronauts on the station just completed their second spacewalk, doing work to prepare for the arrival of the next module. Its arrival can’t be too far in the future, and this complaint by China today suggests it will be sooner rather than later. When it happens China will face a flurry of justified criticism, and the Xi government likely plans to use this UN complaint then to deflect that criticism.

China successfully launches three astronauts to its space station

Launch of Shenzhou

The new colonial movement: China today successfully used its Long March 2F rocket to place three astronauts into orbit to begin a six month mission to that country’s new space station.

The image to the right is a screen capture from the live stream, mere seconds after launch.

It appeared to me that the rocket’s first stage might have had grid fins to control its reentry, but I am not certain. Either way both it and the four strap-on boosters will crash in China.

The Shenzhou capsule will dock with the station in a few hours.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

36 China
23 SpaceX
17 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

China has now moved ahead of the U.S. in the national rankings, 36 to 35.

Watch launch of next crew to Chinese space station

I have embedded the live stream of today’s launch of three astronauts to China’s space station, presently being assembled in orbit. This crew’s mission is planned for six months. More details here. From China’s state-run press is this description of the planned tasks during the mission, including two or three spacewalks as well as the addition of two more large modules to the station.

Liftoff is set for 12:23:44 p.m. (Eastern).

China launches unmanned Tianzhou freighter to its space station

The new colonial movement: In preparation for the arrival of its next three-person crew, China yesterday successfully used its Long March 7 rocket to launch an unmanned Tianzhou freighter to its new space station, docking there seven hours later.

The Long March 7 is a new rocket that launches from China’s Wenchang spaceport on the country’s southern coast. Thus, its expendable stages fall into the ocean, not within China. The rocket also does not use toxic hypergolic fuels, but kerosene and oxygen, so it is less environmental harmful.

The crew will launch to the station on October 13th and will likely spend six months at the station.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

32 China
23 SpaceX
15 Russia
4 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. still leads China 34 to 32 in the national rankings.