Pieces of a Chinese rocket land in the Indian Ocean4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
China launched a Long March 5B rocket into space on April 29 for putting into orbit a core module of the new Tianhe space station. The rocket is China’s largest! In a strange twist to this out-of-the-world tale, parts of the rocket returned to Earth at uncontrollable speed landing all the way into the Indian Ocean.
Parts of the debris disintegrated over the ocean, and some parts fell at a location to the west of Maldives.
What is space debris?
Space debris is also called space junk. It is the artificial material, that is no longer functional, that is orbits Earth. Something like this:
Sourced from Giphy
Did the rocket break in mid-air?
Nope. The rocket is fine. This is meant to happen.
When rockets are launched into space, their discarded boosters re-enter atmosphere soon after liftoff. As they become redundant, the rockets detach them from the main body that will now travel deeper into space. This is planned in such a way that the discarded booster falls harmlessly into an ocean without damaging any part on Earth.
While this is standard practice at the time of launch, the Chinese rocket went to space along with this added baggage. And this is the point of discord.
While it is common practice for upper stages of rockets to disengage during return to the Earth, the location of their fall is always predetermined to avoid any accidents. Apparently, China did not do this for its rocket.
The 10-floor large vehicle of the rocket weighing 18 metric tonnes went into the orbit along with section of the space station it held. In space, the vehicle kept rubbing against air causing enough friction for it to start plummeting towards the Earth at a crazy speed of 25,490 km/hr!
But wait…what’s an upper stage of a rocket?
It’s hard to send a big mass of metal to the space at a speed where it reaches its destination while the project heads can still study them. It requires many pushes (or propellers). At liftoff, the core stage offers this push (or propulsion). This sends the rocket off into the orbit. Once in the orbit, the upper stage offers the push for the rocket to take on its route in space. After its work is done, it disengages from the body of the spaceship, and returns to Earth, in a secluded spot to avoid any damage. Watch this video to know more:
China reported this only on Sunday when the debris entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Even then, the exact location of the wall could not be reported. It could very well have landed in New York or at Chile.
The debris entered Earth’s atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. China reported that by then most of the debris had burnt up in the atmosphere itself.
Something similar happened in May 2020 when a Chinese rocket measuring around 100 feet long took an uncontrolled deep dive back into the atmosphere. It splashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa. This is the largest rocket junk to have entered Earth’s atmosphere.
These out of control crashes are not new, and specific to China.
Last month, a SpaceX rocket stage landed on a farm in Washington due to a malfunction in the engine. In 1979, when NASA brought down its space station, Skylab, parts of it landed in Australia. In 1978, Moscow bore a part of the expenses incurred by Canada to clean the radioactive debris caused by the fall of a Soviet satellite.
Did you know that space agencies have found out that there are around 500,000 such objects with an aggregate weight of over 8,500 tonne just roaming around in space? It is important to track them to ensure that we know where they land if gravity pulls them in this direction.
Do you want to know what this space junk looks like? Watch this video:
When we think of a harmless return to the Earth, can we assume that space debris landing in oceans is not harmful to water bodies? What do you think? Let Owliver know in the comments below!