The exact crash location and time has not yet been determined. But probably next Friday or Saturday, another huge Chinese rocket stage will fall uncontrollably to earth and fragments of debris will hit the ground.
While China downplays the danger, it is there nonetheless. The well-known US scientist Jonathan McDowell points out that in the last three crashes of the China CZ-5B rocket stage, debris has hit inhabited areas on land in two cases.
This time, too, there are theoretically cities with a population of over a million, such as New York or Istanbul, but also cities in China in the potential area for the debris from space. The trajectory of the 17 to 23 ton and a good 30 meter long main stage of China's largest rocket to date, the "Long March 5B", oscillates geographically between the latitudes 41 degrees south and 41 degrees north. This is a 9,000 km wide belt around the equator. At least it can be said with certainty that there is no danger in Germany.
The German space agency DLR points out that the rocket stage is already tumbling in space, i.e. an uncontrolled re-entry into the earth's atmosphere is imminent and that no desired target area can be headed for, such as the South Pacific, which is otherwise deliberately used for burned-out rocket stages.
Contrary to international practice, China consciously accepts that with its heavy-duty missile "Long March 5" debris could fall on inhabited areas. A controlled trajectory, possibly with the use of engines, for a crash into the sea or for a so-called “cemetery orbit”, i.e. a trajectory outside of the orbits otherwise used by satellites, is not intended for this rocket, which was last used for the construction of China’s own space station.
During the maiden flight of the CZ-5B rocket version in May 2020, the burned-out rocket stage flew over the US metropolis of New York just 15 to 20 minutes before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere west of Africa. Debris then damaged houses in the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast).
Most recently, at the end of July, rocket parts from a mission launched a few days earlier fell close to a settlement on the Asian island of Borneo. So there is definitely a risk of debris hitting inhabited areas, even if in the history of space travel no people have been harmed by rocket parts from space.
The US has repeatedly criticized China's practice of uncontrolled re-entry of the CZ-5B rocket stage. NASA director Bill Nelson last summer criticized the behavior of the government in Beijing. Not even precise orbit data or further details on the burned-out rocket stage were delivered. "All spacefaring nations should adhere to best practices," Nelson urged, "to enable reliable predictions of debris impact risk." This is also important for responsible use of space.
China has used the CZ-5 rocket in its past three launches to build its own Tiangong space station as a smaller counterpart to the ISS "International Space Station". The rocket took off on October 31 with the last module, Mengtian (e.g. “dream sky”). With the now coupled 18 meter long module, China's space station is practically complete.
While the Chinese have set up their space station, NASA is considering what the end of the ISS might look like after 2030. An uncontrolled crash, as is now the case with the Chinese, is out of the question for the 450-ton ISS.
In an invitation to tender, Nasa is looking for a US space vehicle that the ISS should then slow down in space for a targeted crash in the South Pacific. It will probably be the most delicate maneuver in space history for a re-entry of rocket parts or satellites into the earth's atmosphere. In the documentation for the controlled ISS crash in the next decade, NASA writes that this maneuver must work.
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