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Another out of control 21-ton Chinese rocket is falling to Earth

Yet another Chinese missile gone out of control – a year after one of Beijing’s spacecraft dropped debris over the Indian Ocean.

Experts fear that part of a 21-ton Long March 5B rocket, launched into space on Sunday, may not burn up completely when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.

It would then fall to the surface in an uncertain location and at great speed.

While the chance of debris hitting a populated area is very slim, many experts believe China is taking an unnecessary risk.

The country’s latest rocket was fired from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island province of Hainan last weekend.

It carried a new solar-powered lab, the Wentian Experiment Module, which was to be added to China’s growing Tiangong space station.

However, experts are concerned that parts of the rocket’s core phase could fall to Earth — in a repeat of China’s launch last May, which scattered debris across the Indian Ocean.

At the time, NASA administrator Bill Nelson accused China of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” including minimizing risks during reentry and being transparent about operations.

Yet another Chinese rocket gone out of control - a year after one of Beijing's spacecraft dropped debris over the Indian Ocean

Yet another Chinese rocket gone out of control – a year after one of Beijing’s spacecraft dropped debris over the Indian Ocean

Experts fear the debris from a 21-ton Long March 5B rocket, launched into space on Sunday (pictured), may not burn up completely when it re-enters Earth's atmosphere

Experts fear the debris from a 21-ton Long March 5B rocket, launched into space on Sunday (pictured), may not burn up completely when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere

WHAT IS TIANGONG?

China’s space station is called ‘Tiangong‘, which means ‘heavenly palace’.

Tiangong consists of several modules that are launched one by one.

In April 2021, the core module, called ‘Tianhe‘ was launched. The first crew arrived in Tianhe two months later.

In July 2022, Wentiana smaller module where research experiments will take place, linked to Tianhe.

In October 2022, a second research lab module, Mengtian, will also attach to Tianhe. If so, the Tiangong space station is complete.

Two more spacecraft that can dock at the station – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – transport crew and cargo respectively, and are not considered part of the station itself.

China also plans to launch Xuntiana space telescope that would run in tandem with the space station in 2024.

The rocket’s first stage was dropped during launch and will continue to orbit through Earth for the next few days as it gradually falls back to the surface.

Experts say the flight path is difficult to predict because of fluctuations in the atmosphere caused by changes in solar activity.

Jonathan McDowell, a veteran tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said data from the US Space Command shows that the rocket’s first stage is floating on its own.

“The inert…core stage remains in orbit and was not actively deorbited,” he tweeted.

The problem with China’s missiles is rooted in the risky design of the country’s launch process.

Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere shortly after takeoff, normally above water, and do not go into orbit.

However, the Long March 5B rocket does.

China has previously dismissed accusations of irresponsibility, with China’s foreign ministry saying the chances of damage to anything or anyone on the ground are “extremely low.”

Many scientists agree with China that the chances of debris causing serious damage are slim, though others think launch designs like the Long March 5Bs are an unnecessary risk.

Last May, one of the country’s Long March missiles broke off on reentry over the Indian Ocean, north of the Maldives, raising concerns that the could strike a populated area on land.

It eventually fell into the ocean, but Nelson still issued a forcefully worded statement saying: “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth from the re-entry of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations.

“Clearly, China is not meeting responsible standards with regard to their space debris.”

In 2020, pieces of the first Long March 5B fell in Côte d’Ivoire, damaging several buildings but not hurting anyone.

The Tiangong Space Station, currently under construction, can be seen in this artistic rendering

The Tiangong Space Station, currently under construction, can be seen in this artistic rendering

The Wenchang Space Launch Center is a rocket launch site in Hainan Island, China

The Wenchang Space Launch Center is a rocket launch site in Hainan Island, China

Wentian, a research lab dedicated to science and biology experiments, is already docked with the main body of the space station, called Tianhe.

It will be followed by a second research lab module, Mengtian, to be launched in October this year.

When Mengtian bonds with the rest of Tiangong, construction of the space station will finally be complete, although Beijing also plans to launch Xuntian, a space telescope that would run alongside the space station, in 2024.

Tiangong (meaning “heavenly palace”) will rival the aging International Space Station (ISS), operated by the space agencies of the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe.

It will consist of three modules, although two other spacecraft – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – carrying crew and cargo respectively, can also dock at the station.

When completed, the Tiangong space station will weigh about 66 tons, much smaller than the ISS, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 450 tons.

The service life is expected to be at least 10 years.

CHINA SPEED UP TO BECOME SPACE SUPERPOWER WITH MISSIONS FROM MARS AND MOON

Chinese space agency officials are working to become a space superpower along with the US and Russia.

They’ve already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the moon and share photos of the part of our closest neighbor we rarely see as part of the Chang’e-4 mission.

In November 2020, they sent the Chang’e-5 spacecraft to the moon to collect and return the first samples of lunar soil in 45 years.

This was done in collaboration with the European Space Agency, which provided tracking information for the Chinese spacecraft.

Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the moon’s south pole and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.

Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition and space environment in a general mission, according to the Chinese Space Authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.

China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology and sending a future manned mission to the surface.

Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it aims to verify the technology destined for the project.

The CNSA is also building a space station in orbit where Chinese astronauts will conduct science experiments, similar to the crew of the International Space Station.

The agency also launched a mission to Mars in the summer of 2020 and landed a rover on the Red Planet in May 2021.

China is also said to be working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, which would beam energy back to Earth and become the largest man-made object in orbit.

They also have a number of ambitious space science projects, including satellites to hunt for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecraft to track climate change.

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