China building its own permanent space station using launch technique generating massive space junk that will crash to earth

Stand by for twenty-two-and-a-half metric tons of space junk uncontrollably falling to earth, potentially striking a city with tons of metal traveling at terminal velocity. It will happen soon and will be followed by other similar crashes as China constructs its own private permanent space station using a technique is banned by a treaty that it signed.

SpaceNews reports:

China launched the first module for its space station into orbit late Wednesday, but the mission launcher also reached orbit and is slowly and unpredictably heading back to Earth.

The Long March 5B, a variant of China’s largest rocket, successfully launched the 22.5-metric-ton Tianhe module from Wenchang Thursday local time. Tianhe separated from the core stage of the launcher after 492 seconds of flight, directly entering its planned initial orbit. 

Designed specifically to launch space station modules into low Earth orbit, the Long March 5B uniquely uses a core stage and four side boosters to place its payload directly into low Earth orbit. 

However this core stage is now also in orbit and is likely to make an uncontrolled reentry over the next days or week as growing interaction with the atmosphere drags it to Earth. If so, it will be one of the largest instances of uncontrolled reentry of a spacecraft and could potentially land on an inhabited area.

The entire lower half + will fall back to earth (Photo courtesy Xinhua via Phys.org)

Normally, the first stage of an orbital rocket detaches before orbit is reached, and crashes to earth harmlessly in a predictable area at sea. But China has adopted a technique that places it into an orbit from which it will return and crash into an unpredictable target on earth. China apparently has not de-orbited the module, a technique that would prevent it falling back to earth. While some of the 22.5 metric tons of the Tianhe module will burn up on re-entry, stainless steel and titanium components, among others, are more resistant, and in all probability at least a few tons will land on the earth’s surface. We hope it will not land on Shanghai, London, Beijing, New York, Tokyo, or any inhabited places.

The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area. 

The odds are that it will hit water, since oceans cover so much of the earth’s surface, but the impact zone does include most of the world’s biggest cities and densest populated regions. There are 10 more launches scheduled for constructing China’s space station, and with each successive launch, the chance of hitting a populated area increases, iunless China starts being able to de-orbit its space junk.

As Robert Zimmerman points out:

China’s design for this rocket means that every single launch will result in similar potential disasters. They cannot restart the core stage’s engines after cut-off, so that once it has delivered its payload it is nothing more than a very big and uncontrolled brick that has to hit the ground somewhere.

This is a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty, which China is a signatory. The treaty makes signatories liable for any damage from an uncontrolled re-entry, and requires them to take action to prevent such events from occurring.

China it appears doesn’t care much about the treaties it signs. The first time could be rung up to a mistake. The second time is intentional and tells us that this country will not honor any of its obligations anywhere else, if it decides it can get away with it.

And, of course, there is nothing to worry about regarding what activities China might engage in at its private space station, also in violation of the Outer Space Treaty. /sarcasm

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