This Wednesday, the news that a Chinese rocket was going to fall to Earth jumped to the media. Unfortunately, much of what has been published about it is confusing and yellowish. What happens to this rocket and what should we do about it?
On April 29, the first module of the new Chinese space station took off, aboard a Long March CZ-5B rocket. A rocket is usually made up of several “stages”, which burn successively. When one stage is finished, it is dropped and the next one goes into operation. The Long March CZ-5B rocket has a uniqueness: the main stage of the rocket runs throughout the launch, and finally enters orbit.
It is not uncommon for parts of the rockets to remain in orbit, after a few days they fall and disintegrate in the atmosphere. But in this case the main stage remains in orbit, which is very large. With a length of 31 meters, and about 20 tons of mass, will it disintegrate in the atmosphere, or will some fragment reach the surface of the Earth?
It is not that it is the first time that something like this has happened. The MIR space station is an example that larger objects have disintegrated in our atmosphere. But, except by accident, large objects do not usually fall uncontrollably. The normal thing is to direct them to the Pacific Ocean, where the risk is very low.
Instead, the main stage of this rocket remains in an orbit in which it is the slow friction with the atmosphere that makes it lose height. Until it finally burns into the atmosphere over an unpredictable location.
The one on April 29 is the second launch of this rocket with this configuration. The first launch occurred a year ago, and the first stage ended up disintegrating on the African Atlantic coast. But some potentially dangerous fragments fell on the Ivory Coast.
In this context, concerns have arisen about what will happen. The rocket is expected to burn up in the atmosphere between Saturday the 8th and Sunday the 9th, but the exact moment is unpredictable.
The rocket orbits between latitudes 40 ⁰ North and South, and circles the Earth once every 90 minutes. For this reason, atmospheric reentry can occur almost anywhere between these latitudes. Some English media have not hesitated to point out that Madrid is in that strip. Those of Bilbao will have to go and explain that the center of the world is not Madrid …
Since most of the planet is covered by water, the fragments are most likely to fall into the ocean, or a sparsely inhabited area. But it is not impossible that some fragment produces an accident.
The controversy has been presented in some media as a confrontation between China and the United States. “White House Urges” Responsible Behavior in Space “” International Media Headlines These headlines are based on a brief statement by Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, asked by a journalist during an unrelated press conference .
The seriousness of the situation is therefore not what some media have wanted to convey. And there is not really a diplomatic conflict either. But it is true that we should not ignore the problem. Although space often seems far away, the activities that take place there have a growing influence on our life on Earth. That is why it is important to understand the problems associated with activities in space.
The space debris problem is perhaps the best known. Space debris can cause accidents when it falls to Earth, but also in space: as traffic increases in the planet’s orbit, the risk of collisions increases. And in turn, collisions produce more space junk, and can disable large satellites that end up falling to Earth.
In 2009 two satellites collided. And at different times the Soviet Union, the United States, China, and India have intentionally destroyed satellites to test weapons. These types of events are responsible for much of the space debris. Right now, the SpaceX company is deploying its “mega-constellation” Starlink, consisting of several thousand satellites, and other companies want to deploy their own mega-constellations.
Another problem is space mining. Some asteroids contain resources that could be profitable to exploit in the future. Should they be exploited? How should the resources obtained be distributed?
International regulation on activities in space is necessary. Several international treaties already exist. The “Treaty on Outer Space” establishes the responsibility of states for the damage that their space objects could cause: If this rocket causes damage, China would be responsible. At least on paper.
Also important is the “Moon Treaty”, which came into force in 1984 but very few countries have signed. The Trump administration openly rejected it because it declared the space a common heritage, which, in its opinion, represents a brake on activities such as space mining.
As there are no effective mechanisms to enforce them, and as they have not been updated to the new times, these treaties are insufficient in practice. If we do not want the dream of space exploration to become a dystopia, we will need effective international regulation to help us defend the common interest of humanity.