US military: out-of-control Chinese rocket booster breaks up over South Pacific

Authorities allowed a Long March-5B Y4 core stage to detach in a chaotic manner, triggering fears of dangerous falling debris hitting land

Launch of the Long March 5B Y4 rocket on October 31 from Tiangong.
Launch of the Long March 5B Y4 rocket on October 31 from Tiangong.CHINA DAILY (VIA REUTERS)

China once again triggered a global alarm after allowing part of a rocket from its ambitious space program to fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner. The Long March-5B Y4, which delivered the last module to China’s Tiangong space station, weighs in excess of 20 tons, although friction against the atmosphere tends to disintegrate much of this space debris on its way back to Earth.

This is the third time in two years that Chinese space authorities have generated this global danger, which NASA has described on several occasions as irresponsible. The chaotic orbit in which China disposed of the module made it very difficult to calculate when and where it would fall specifically, although air and space authorities had predicted a path that included parts of the US, Central and South America, southern Europe, Africa, southeast Asia and Australia. On Friday, the US military reported that the module had broken up over the South Pacific.

In Spain, authorities shut down airspace over of the airports of Barcelona, Tarragona, Ibiza and Reus for about 40 minutes on Friday morning. The EU Space Surveillance and Tracking agency predicted the module would pass over the Iberian Peninsula twice, making it a possible point of impact.

The Chinese space program deliberately lets one stage of its Long March rockets fall uncontrollably to Earth every time they are used. The last time China caused this planetary scare was on July 30, when much of this space junk disintegrated over the Indian Ocean. In May 2021, rocket debris again fell into the Indian Ocean, near India and Sri Lanka. NASA responded with a highly critical statement: “It is clear that China is not meeting responsible standards regarding its space debris.” In March of this year, a chunk of space debris also hit the Moon: it turned out to be the remains of another Chinese rocket that was left adrift.

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