China prepares to launch space station module with unknown landing

Another big Chinese rocket is about to launch on Sunday, and once again, no one knows where or when it will land.

It will be a repeat of two previous launches of the same rocket, the Long March 5B, which is one of the largest currently in use and designed to transport massive modules from the Chinese Tiangong space station into orbit. For about a week after launch, space debris watchers around the world will be tracking the 10-story, 23-ton rocket as wisps of air friction slowly pull it back down.

The chance of hitting someone on Earth is low, but significantly higher than what many space experts consider acceptable.

Here’s what you need to know about the release.

The space station module, called Wentian, is scheduled to launch at around 2:22 pm Beijing time on Sunday, according to state media from southern China’s Hainan island. This is about 2 am Eastern US Time.

Chinese state-sponsored television is providing English coverage of the launch, which you can watch in the embedded video player above.

The mighty rocket was specifically designed to launch pieces from the Chinese Tiangong space station. The latest launch will carry Wentian, a laboratory module that will expand the station’s scientific research capabilities. It will also add three more spaces for astronauts to sleep and another air chamber for spacewalks.

As of April this year, China had completed a total of six missions for the construction of the space station. Three crews of astronauts lived aboard the station, including the trio that will receive the Wentian module this week.

The completion and operation of the space station is described in state media broadcasts as important to China’s national prestige.

“China is not and has not done anything that the US has not already done in space,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College and former chairman of the Department of National Security Affairs. “But it is approaching technical parity, which worries the US a lot”

She compared the Chinese space program to a tortoise compared to the American hare, “although the tortoise has accelerated considerably in recent years”.

On a hot, sunny morning, crowds of space fans from China spilled onto the beach near the rocket launch area on Hainan Island. Others huddled on the rooftops of seaside hotels.

Zhang Jingyi, 26, installed his camera on the roof of a hotel along with about 30 others on Sunday morning.

It was her 19th trip to “chasing rockets,” she said. She made her hotel reservation four months ago.

“There are more people than ever before,” she said.

Mrs. Zhang referred to the rocket by the nickname used by aficionados: “Fat Five”. “There will be a small earthquake when it launches,” she said.

By design, Long March 5B’s central booster stage will push the Wentian module, which is more than 15 meters long, into orbit. This means that the booster will also hit orbit.

This differs from most rockets, the lower stages of which normally fall back to Earth immediately after launch. The upper stages that reach orbit usually fire the engine again after releasing their payloads, guiding them to re-entry into an unoccupied area, such as the middle of an ocean.

If the rocket’s design has not changed, no thruster will guide its descent and the thruster’s engines cannot be restarted.

“It will be the same story,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who tracks the comings and goings of objects in space. “It is possible that the rocket designers made some small change to the rocket that would then allow them to propulsively deorbit the stage. But I don’t expect that.”

The final shower of debris, with a few tons of metal expected to survive to the surface, can occur anywhere along the thruster’s path, which travels as far north as 41.5 degrees north latitude and up to 41.5 degrees north latitude. south latitude.

This means that there will be no danger to Chicago or Rome, which are slightly north of the orbital trajectories, but Los Angeles, New York, Cairo and Sydney, Australia, are among the cities the thruster will travel through.

China’s space agencies did not respond to a request for an interview about the upcoming launch.

After the first launch of the Long March 5B in 2020, the thruster re-entered West Africa, with debris causing damage but no injuries in villages in the Ivory Coast nation.

The booster for the second launch, in 2021, landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. Still, Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, issued a statement criticizing the Chinese. “It is clear that China is not meeting responsible standards regarding its space debris,” he said.

China rejected this criticism with considerable fanfare. Hua Chunying, a senior spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused the United States of “exaggeration”.

“The United States and some other countries have been promoting the landing of Chinese rocket wreckage in recent days,” Hua said. “To date, no damage from landing debris has been reported.”

During a pre-launch broadcast on CGTN, a Chinese state-run media outlet, Xu Yansong, a former official with China’s National Space Administration, referred to the 2020 incident in Côte d’Ivoire. Since then, he said, “we have improved our technologies” to take down the rocket stage in an uninhabited region, but did not give details.

Read You contributed research.

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