A Chinese rocket, Long March 5B, fell back to Earth on Monday (May 11) after losing control. The body of the spent rocket became the largest piece of space junk in decades to fall towards Earth, said Spaceflight Now report.
The Long March 5B rocket was reportedly launched on May 5 from the Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island in southern China, carrying a prototype for China’s next-generation crew capsule into orbit on an unpiloted test flight.
Spaceflight Now reported that the rocket's launch on May 5 marked the debut of a new configuration of China’s heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket. On the Long March 5B, Chinese designers removed the rocket’s second stage and replaced it with a longer volume for payloads.
The Chinese rocket, which fell into the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, becoming the most massive object in nearly 30 years to perform an uncontrolled re-entry from orbit.
A prominent Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracks objects in orbit, tweeted, “It is the most massive object to make an uncontrolled reentry since the 39-tonne Salyut-7 in 1991.”
The rocket body was reportedly more massive than the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station that plummeted back to Earth (presumably landing somewhere in the ocean) in 2018. It’s about a fifth the mass of Skylab, which came back to Earth near Perth, Australia in 1979, a Forbes report said.
Spaceflight Now reported that the re-entry occurred less than 15 minutes after the rocket body soared almost directly over New York City. The rocket’s core stage measured around 100 feet (30 meters) long and 16 feet (5 meters) wide, with a mass of approximately 20 metric tons.
Notably, dead satellites and old rocket stages regularly re-enter the atmosphere, but re-entering objects with masses of more than a few tons are rare.
The report said that uncontrolled re-entries are difficult to predict, and forecasts issued by the US military narrowed the window for the rocket’s fall back to Earth in the days before re-entry.
Ground-based radars reportedly tracked the Long March 5B rocket body in space and that allowed US military officials charged with monitoring space debris to regularly measure the core stage’s decaying orbit.
China has reportedly planned to launch at least three more Long March 5B rockets in 2021 and 2022 with modules for the country’s planned space station.