Spain temporarily closed its airspace due to an out-of-control Chinese rocket

It was the fourth uncontrolled re-entry for China’s Long March 5B.

China Daily CDIC / reuters

For the second time this year, the uncontrolled remnants of a Chinese Long March 5B came crashing to Earth. On Friday morning, US Space Command confirmed pieces of the rocket that carried the third and final piece of China's Tiangong space station to orbit had re-entered the planet’s atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean, reports The New York Times. The debris eventually plunged into the body of water, leaving no one harmed.

The episode marked the fourth uncontrolled re-entry for China’s most powerful heavy-lift rocket following its debut in 2020. Unlike many of its modern counterparts, including the SpaceX Falcon 9, the Long March 5B can’t reignite its engine to complete a predictable descent back to Earth. The rocket has yet to harm anyone (and probably won’t in the future). Still, each time China has sent a Long March 5B into space, astronomers and onlookers have anxiously followed its path back to the surface, worrying it might land somewhere people live. On Friday, Spain briefly closed parts of its airspace over risks posed by the debris from Monday’s mission, leading to hundreds of flight delays.

As he did earlier this year following China’s Wentian mission, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized the country for not taking the appropriate precautions to prevent an out-of-control re-entry. “It is critical that all spacefaring nations are responsible and transparent in their space activities, and follow established best practices, especially, for the uncontrolled re-entry of a large rocket body debris — debris that could very well result in major damage or loss of life,” he said.

Space debris landing on Earth isn’t a problem unique to China. In August, for instance, a farmer in rural Australia found a piece of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that landed on his farm. However, many experts stress that those incidents differ from the one that occured on Friday. “The thing I want to point out about this is that we, the world, don’t deliberately launch things this big intending them to fall wherever,” Ted Muelhaupt, an Aerospace Corporation consultant, told The Times. “We haven’t done that for 50 years.” China will launch another Long March 5B rocket next year when it attempts to put its Xuntian space telescope into orbit.

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