The upcoming reentry of China’s Long March-5 rocket body is a reminder of a much larger problem.

China’s big booster tossed the country’s Tianhe space station module into orbit on April 29th. Now satellite and space debris monitoring groups are keeping a close eye on the uncontrolled nose dive to Earth of the large rocket stage. Leftover debris from its fiery fall could reach terra firma.

But over what part of Earth it will reenter is a sketchy predictive pronouncement. Nobody knows for sure of the exact date/time of the rocket body’s demise.

One report has the hardware out of control, tumbling along an elliptical orbit and falling to Earth in a few days, perhaps as early as May 9th.

In short, the rocket body equation adds up to a dilemma.

The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies is presently predicting a reentry time for the CZ-5B rocket body (ID 48275) on May 10th, plus or minus 41 hours.
Artwork: The Aerospace Corporation/CORDS

Magnitude of the problem

“It really isn’t about this one rocket body…because every rocket body in Earth orbit is uncontrolled,” explains T.S. Kelso of CelesTrak, an analytical group that keeps an observant eye on Earth-orbiting objects.

The true magnitude of the problem can be identified by a quick check on CelesTrak.

“It shows there are 2,033 rocket bodies in Earth orbit…at least those that we have orbital data for as there may be more classified ones. Of course, every one of them is uncontrolled. Of the 2,033, 546 belong to the U.S. and only 169 belong to China.

“Maybe we all need to be more responsible and not leave uncontrolled rocket bodies in orbit,” Kelso told Inside Outer Space.

Clutter in the cosmos.
Credit: Used with permission: Melrae Pictures/Space Junk 3D

Where are they?

Who is the worst offender? It is Russia with 1,035 rocket bodies.

“There are another 66 rocket bodies in Earth orbit that we have no data for, because they are classified,” Kelso notes, that is, there are no “where are they?” orbit elements available. “Most we have no idea what orbit they are in, so they could reenter or just run into something else in orbit, pretty much without any warning.”

One of those is from a 1967 launch and eight are from launches in the 1970s, Kelso adds.

Bottom line

Just for 2020 launches, there are still 32 rocket bodies in orbit. China is not doing particularly well, though, since 15 of those are Chinese. Ten of those are U.S., with five of those being for classified launches, Kelso reports.

“The problem is the number should be zero and we all need to start working now to make sure we don’t continue to make this problem worse,” Kelso concludes. “But the bottom line is that we all need to do better to stop leaving things in orbit after their intended use and to find safe ways to remove them.”

2 Responses to “China’s Falling Rocket Body – High Sign of Bigger Problem”

  • Thomas says:

    Leonard, sadly the the truth is the Mao Chinese communist do not care.

  • Ben says:

    So was there a deorbit burn that failed ? or was there no plan to do a controlled deorbit of the booster?

    At least it’s not a hypergolic fueled stage.

Leave a Reply