China’s rocket debris falls to Earth as ‘accurately predicted’

China’s space authority announced on Sunday that remnants from China’s Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, most of it burning up on entry, with some remnants falling in the Arabian Sea.

Amid an intense China-US relationship and increasingly fierce competition in technology between the two great powers, some Americans have been racking their brains and grasping every chance to hype the “China threat” theory, with the latest episode being they accusing China of being “irresponsible” for leaving rocket debris “uncontrolled, causing threats to objects on Earth,” despite the fact that it is a global common way to deal with rocket debris, practiced by all space powers including the US itself.

Chinese aerospace experts mocked that they felt “surprised” that some people would buy such absurd logic as it is common sense in the science field. Analysts of foreign affairs pointed out that it reflects the double standards of the West in an attempt to sabotage China’s space station construction plan, exposing their military intentions to track China’s space hardware.

‘Completely normal’

Debris from China’s Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere at 10:24 am Beijing time on Sunday with most parts burning up during the process, China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said. The location of the re-entry is 72.47 degrees east longitude and 2.65 degrees north latitude, indicating somewhere on the Arabian Sea west of the Maldives.

Despite clarification by China’s space industry insiders and Foreign Ministry that the probability of the rocket remnants causing harm was extremely low, a number of Western media outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, as well as the US’ Pentagon and NASA, claimed the debris was heading back to Earth in an “uncontrolled” manner and criticized China of being “irresponsible” for the ocean landing.

“The accusations were false, groundless,” said Song Zhongping, an aerospace expert and TV commentator. “The so-called ‘uncontrolled’ trajectory refers to the loss of propulsion, but in no way means that China has lost track of its flight path and real-time location.”

Every movement of the rocket fragments is being closely watched by China’s space tracking network, and accurate predictions on its landing site were made accordingly and the flight course would avoid densely inhabited areas in the designing phase, Song told the Global Times on Sunday.

Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, said it is “completely normal” for rocket debris to return to Earth, and it is a common practice carried out by all global participants in the aerospace field, including the US.

“The wreckage’s fall is within the normal range under widely accepted standards, with most parts burnt up during re-entry and a few were insufficiently burnt due to differences in the atmospheric environment,” Wang said.

“Except for the SpaceX reusable rockets, all remnants from the first and second stages of traditional launch vehicles return to Earth in an uncontrolled manner. And all countries conducting such practice track the falling pieces and calculate their trajectories as China does,” Wang noted.

The Tianhe space station core module’s successful delivery to orbit has proven the reliability and controllability of the Long March 5B rocket, Wang added.

Following the successful launch of the Long March-5B Y2, which sent the first section of China’s space station – Tianhe core module cabin – into orbit, China kicked off an intense construction phase of the country’s first space station project, where a busy schedule of another 10 launches has been set for the next two years. The space station is expected to be operational by 2022.

Estimated to be the only operational space station in orbit that will be open to foreign partners after the retirement of the International Space Station scheduled in 2024, some Western countries, especially the US, are jealous of how rapidly China is growing in aerospace technology. “Therefore, any progress in the aerospace sector will touch a nerve in the US strategic community,” Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Sunday.

The US has continued suppressing China on science and technology field after US President Joe Biden took office. It tried to use the issue of the rocket debris to smear China’s image in the globe, accusing the country of damaging world peace, and on the other hand, it attempted to play up the “China threat” theory as not every country can develop Long March rockets, Li said.

Space debris is an issue faced by all countries in the process of space development. Space needs protection from all countries just like Earth. However, it is a scientific and technological issue and should not be politicized, Li stressed.

Several Chinese space industry insiders reached by the Global Times on Sunday revealed that China did its homework during the initial rocket design phase on the liftoff position, trajectory planning and related technical preparations, which all took into consideration the falling of rocket debris.

Military intentions

Before the debris reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, the US military and certain EU agencies closely tracked the debris and predicted the landing time and location. Experts noted that Western predictive analysis of the wreckage of the final stage of the Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket is a kind of anti-missile training for them.

“Although the upper stage of this rocket is not a real missile, the prediction of its flight trajectory and reentry performance parameters can be used as an exercise to predict the reentry parameters of a real missile warhead. It is a reference for their future precise anti-missile operations,” said Huang Zhicheng, an expert in the space industry.

Huang noted that the treatment of rocket debris around the world is basically at the same level. The main problem is that the debris of the upper stage of the rocket may cause a small amount of debris, but the probability of causing harm is very small. However, this problem has not been finally solved by any country.

‘Comet-like’ or ‘serious threat’?

In stark contrast to media reports on China’s rocket debris, burning rocket remnants of the second stage of the US SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which crashed on a farm in Washington state in March, were described by media like Associated Press as “leaving comet-like trails” as the vessel streaked across the Pacific Northwest sky.

The different descriptions of the two rockets reflects the double standards adopted by some Western forces in the way China is treated, said Song, as “they are not really worried about causing harm to people, but since it’s a Chinese rocket, they have politicized the matter, put a label on it and then hyped it.”

Xing Jianwei, vice chief designer of the Long March 2C carrier rocket, told media that China is developing the capability to control the rocket’s fairing (when the nose cone that protects the payload is jettisoned in space) after separation so that the attitude of its re-entry to Earth can be controlled.

During the nearly 60 years of space activity, no case of rocket debris causing human casualties has been reported. The risks for all rocket debris are fairly close, hence, it is seriously anti-intellectual to claim that Chinese rockets have a particularly high risk, analysts said.

“I now really doubt the common sense of science in Western society, since they believe in such logic,” Wang Yanan noted. 

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