When Elon Musk’s SpaceX launches a rocket, it lands its booster back on a pad, thus saving hundreds of millions of dollars — and maybe lives, as well.
But not China. The communist country just launched a massive rocket, and there’s no telling where its booster will land.
On Sunday, China sent into space a rocket dubbed Long March 5B from a pad on the southern island province of Hainan. The spacecraft carries an experimental solar-powered new lab that will be added to its Tiangong Space Station.
The booster was huge — more than 175 feet tall and weighing more than 1.8 million pounds. Space experts are worried that some debris from its core stage might not fully disintegrate as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
The rocket shed its 46,000-pound first stage in space, which means it will orbit the Earth for some unknown time, ending with the booster re-entering the atmosphere. While experts don’t think it will land in an inhabited area, just where it does land is unknown.
After the last time China launched a similar rocket back in May, its booster fell into the Indian Ocean. But NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized the launch, saying China was “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson said in a short statement posted on NASA’s website.
“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” Nelson said.
With that rocket, projections showed the booster could land anywhere from North America to Africa, but again, experts expected it to land in an ocean.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said that space engineers were tracking its re-entry.
“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means that most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” he said, according to an official transcript.
Before the most recent launch, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, wrote on Twitter that he hoped China had designed a new system that allows for the core stage to be actively deorbited instead of just randomly falling back to Earth.
He said that the booster “was passivated for safe reentry. Not enough to passivate, have to do it in a controlled way that actually deorbits it. Maybe they’ll do that this time though — I hope so.”
Joseph Curl has covered politics for 35 years, including 12 years as White House correspondent for a national newspaper. He was also the a.m. editor of the Drudge Report for four years. Send tips to [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @josephcurl.