Sometimes it's just a few minutes that make the difference. For example, with the Chinese rocket stage, which is crashing uncontrollably. The Spanish authorities had already closed parts of the airspace on Friday morning. But the rocket stage stayed in space a few minutes longer than initially thought.
The CZ-5B main stage, about 30 meters long and weighing roughly 20 tons, staggered along its crash corridor at breakneck speed across the Iberian Peninsula and southern Europe and flew on. According to the Pentagon Space Command, the rocket stage entered the atmosphere at the equivalent of 11:01 a.m. GMT over the southern Pacific Ocean.
A second US military report said there was a second reentry five minutes later, this time in the northeast Pacific. Experts conclude that the rocket stage may have broken into two large pieces with different crash sites.
The trajectory of the main stage of China's most powerful rocket, the CZ-5B, was tracked around the world. Shortly before the crash, the route led from the Atlantic via southern Europe and then further south from India towards Australia. Because the rocket stage was traveling at high speed and orbited the earth within 90 minutes, a short period of those few minutes was enough to shift the potential crash site to another region of the world.
Before the crash, Europe's aviation safety authority EASA had warned of a danger in a corridor from the Canary Islands, via Portugal, Spain, southern France, to Italy or Greece. But China's rocket stage flew over this region in space.
It is true that burned-out rocket stages or satellites regularly enter the earth's atmosphere at the end of their service life. But the main stage of the Long March 5B (CZ-5B) rocket is unusually large and heavy. In addition, Beijing is not following international conventions when it comes to re-entering its most powerful rocket.
They envisage a controlled crash into a pre-calculated target area. Most of the time, the South Pacific is used, where China's rocket debris has now happened to have landed.
Beijing is playing a kind of crash bingo for those who are lucky and not exposed to the risk of debris from space. In the previous three CZ-5B launches since May 2020, two missions dropped debris near populated areas, in the West African state of Côte d'Ivoire and on the island of Borneo.
How many tons of the approximately 17 to 23-ton rocket stage ultimately hit the ground is "difficult to estimate," says space debris expert Manuel Metz from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) on request. Tanks, engine parts or structures of the rocket stage may survive re-entry into the atmosphere.
The experts are having some trouble calculating the crash corridor more precisely in advance anyway, because China hardly provides any technical data on the rocket or trajectory data. Beijing is downplaying the risk of the rocket stage crashing anyway.
The United States and some other countries are exaggerating the risk, a spokeswoman for Beijing's foreign ministry said recently. NASA sees it differently. The US space agency regularly criticizes China's behavior with the uncontrolled entry into the atmosphere.
The rocket lifted off on October 31 and carried into orbit the final module to date for the construction of Beijing's own space station Tiangong (Heaven's Palace). It is still unclear when the next flight of a Long March 5B rocket will take place. A space telescope is to be launched next year and the Chinese are expected to set foot on the moon by 2030.
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