Spent Chinese Long 6A rocket spews over 50 pieces of space junk
Tiangong, ISS, and SpaceX satellites will not be affected, according to China's Foreign Ministry
The spent Long 6A rocket launching China's Yunhai-3 satellite has broken up, scattering over 50 different chunks into low-Earth orbit after it failed to disintegrate completely upon reentry in the atmosphere.
The launch vehicle blasted off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China at 0652 Beijing Time on November 12 (2252 UTC on November 11). It successfully lifted the satellite into orbit, according to an announcement from Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight, a subsidiary unit of the rocket's maker, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
But an issue caused the Long 6A rocket's upper stage to fracture instead of burning up in the Earth's atmosphere in one piece as it came crashing back down. The US Space Force estimated it broke apart at 500-700 kilometers in altitude at roughly 0525 UTC on November 12, producing over 50 pieces of debris in space.
At those distances, the component splintered above China's Tiangong space station, the International Space Station, and SpaceX's Starlink satellites. Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government's Foreign Ministry, confirmed the incident in a press conference in Beijing.
"As far as we know, the relevant incident will not affect the Chinese space station or the International Space Station," she said, according to the South China Morning Post.
The Long March 6A's upper stage is designed to fall back to Earth in one piece and safely disintegrate upon reentry into Earth's atmosphere. It's not clear what caused the rocket to break apart this time, however. Cees Bassa, an astronomer at ASTRON, a radio astronomy lab in the Netherlands, said an error may have occurred when it was trying to dump its fuel.
"It is good practice to either de-orbit rocket upper stages after delivering its payload, or dump fuel overboard to prevent these catastrophic breakups. The fact that the CZ-6A showed fuel on 2 successive orbits suggests something may have gone wrong with the fuel dump," Bassa tweeted.
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China's space agencies have been criticized for dodgy orbits of rockets before. In August, debris from the 23-ton rocket booster leftover from China's Long March 5B vehicle reportedly came crashing back down and fell into the sea near the Philippines coast, and broken shards landed near Indonesia and Malaysia.
The falling chunks of debris are potentially dangerous, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized the Chinese government for not disclosing the rocket's trajectory as it fell back down.
"All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property. Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth," he previously said. ®