After scaring the world, China shows off 'chute that can aim Long March rockets' descents

Tech shrinks landing zones by 80 percent

After years of expecting the world to deal with debris from the Long March rockets, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) has developed a parachute system to guide its rockets to a predetermined landing zone.

According to state-sponsored media, analysis of debris from a test determined that the parachute narrowed the landing area range of a recent Long March 3B rocket launch by 80 percent.

The Long March 3B was returning from sending a BeiDou navigation satellite into orbit to add to China's GPS equivalent. When it reached a predetermined altitude, it opened its parafoil.

Long March 3B parachute-controlled descent

Using parachutes is not unusual for spacecraft. NASA has used them since the earliest days of its space missions, and private operators have also employed the decelerators.

NASA, of course, has the additional safety precaution of launching its space vehicles from coastal areas where debris from failed launches is most likely to fall into the ocean. China, like the old Soviet Union, is more secretive about its launch sites.

"Most of China's major launch sites are deep inland, meaning preventing fallen rocket parts from landing unpredictably – especially in areas with human activities – has become an urgent task for scientists," wrote Chinese news site CGTN.

According to Chinese state media, the success of Long March 3B's chute lays a foundation for future parachute landing control technology.

As wonderful as that is for China, it will also be welcome news to the international space community, which has not been happy about China's uncontrolled descents.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson gave Beijing a stern chiding for not disclosing a Long March 5B's trajectory last summer. The world waited in breathless anticipation waiting to find out if it would strike down on a populated area. The 23-ton piece of junk eventually crashed into the sea just off the coast of the Philippines, scattering bits on land in Indonesia and Malaysia.

That global Long March 5B skywatch was not an isolated event – two previous launches of Chinese boosters also resulted in uncontrolled re-entries.

It has been suggested that the rocket receive a redesign that would not leave big chunks of it in decaying orbits that endanger people. Failing that, a parachute might have to do. ®

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