Next Saturday (08), the remains of a rocket Long March 5B Chinese must fall to Earth. The problem is that this wreckage possibly weighs several tons and no one has been able to figure out where the exact point of the uncontrolled re-entry will be.
According to scientific calculations carried out so far, the object’s orbit indicates that the possible landing points are anywhere in the latitude range that runs from the north – just beyond New York, Madrid and Beijing – to the southernmost point of the Chile and the city of Wellington, New Zealand. The possibility of a fall in American territory has been worrying the United States, which is monitoring the range that could be reached.
To Wang Ya’nan, editor-in-chief of the magazine Aerospace Knowledge, the danger is almost nil: “most of the debris will burn during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving only a small portion that can fall to the ground, and which should land in areas far from human activities or in the ocean”, he said in an interview to the China Global Times, which belongs to the official group of the Chinese Communist Party.
Human-produced space junk
Professor Steven Freeland, member of the Advisory Board of the Australian Space Agency, stated in an article posted on the website The Conversation, that these must be some of the biggest human-made wreckage to re-enter our atmosphere.
The rocket, which is on a collision course with Earth, took off on April 29 from the Wenchang spaceport in China, carrying the Tianhe module – the central part of what will be the Tiangong-3, the next Chinese space station – into orbit. After 492 seconds of flight, it is slowly and unpredictably returning to our planet.
The incident comes a year after another similar case, when, on May 11, 2020, the remains of another Chinese rocket landed on Earth, more precisely in the Atlantic Ocean. Before falling, however, the object left pieces in villages in Côte d’Ivoire, Africa.
Major incidents in the space race
Freeland has listed some cases of space debris crashing in Australia. According to the academic, the country holds the record for the location reached by the largest piece of space debris: in 1979, the American station SkyLab it disintegrated over Western Australia, leaving debris all over the coastal town of Esperance.
Since the 70s pieces of space junk have regularly fallen to Earth and are viewed with concern. Although the incident with the skylab have not left any injuries, these events are potentially dangerous: more than 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans, but the problem is the 30% that remains. The professor says the consequences could be disastrous.
In 1978 the Soviet surveillance satellite Cosmos 954 – powered by nuclear power – did not crash in Toronto or Quebec, Canada, very close. The fall of radioactive material, according to the consultant, would result in a large-scale evacuation.
As early as 2007, pieces of a Russian satellite nearly hit the passenger on a flight between Santiago, Chile, and Auckland, New Zealand. “The more we send objects into space, the more we increase the chance of a disastrous forced landing,” he explained.
China must foot the bill
The London Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, a 1972 UN treaty, imposes rules on countries that launch objects into space. Among the possible damages from this exploration, one clause includes space debris hitting Earth: it is a case of absolute liability.
The clause was only invoked once: in the accident with the Cosmos 954 satellite, when Canada charged $6 million Canadian dollars from the Soviet Union, but ended up closing a deal on $3 million.
In Freeman’s opinion, a globally coordinated space traffic system will be vital to preventing future accidents – such as collisions that can result in the loss of control of satellites, which in turn can become space junk on a collision course with Earth. He said: “Global cooperation is essential if we are to avoid an unsustainable future for our space activities.”