Chinese rocket body disintegrates into big cloud of space junk

Part of a Chinese rocket that launched the Yunhai 3 satellite last month is now a debris cloud of around 350 pieces.

The Long March 6A rocket launched from Taiyuan, north China, on Nov. 11, successfully inserting the Yunhai 3 environmental monitoring satellite into its intended orbit. 

The upper stage of the rocket, however, apparently suffered a breakup event shortly thereafter. On Nov. 12, the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron (18 SDS) reported (opens in new tab) that it was tracking at least 50 discrete pieces of orbital debris from the rocket body.

Ongoing tracking from 18 SDS, which focuses on space domain awareness, now states that the debris cloud has grown to 350 objects associated with the rocket stage.

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Breakups of rocket stages are not uncommon. The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office at Darmstadt, Germany, notes that there have been more than 630 (opens in new tab) breakups, explosions, collisions or anomalous events in orbit creating debris to date. A Russian space tug broke up earlier this year, 15 years after its launch.

Collisions with space debris or micrometeorites can create more junk. Many spacecraft operators currently take steps to prevent events that could result in debris-creating explosions, such as venting residual propellant from tanks and discharging batteries. 

Astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell told that the distribution of debris from the recently launched Long March 6A suggests an energetic event, rather than something like insulation flaking off the rocket body at low velocity.

McDowell suggested that, given the timing, one possibility is a failure to vent propellant and then the residual propellant igniting, but he stressed that the cause is unclear.

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China’s Foreign Ministry replied (opens in new tab) to a New York Times question on the incident on Nov. 14, stating that “what happened will not have an impact on China’s space station or the International Space Station. I would refer you to competent authorities for details.”

The majority of the Long March 6A debris is between the altitudes of 500 miles and 620 miles (800 to 1,000 kilometers), and most of it will take a very long time to reenter the atmosphere. The ISS orbits at an average of 227 miles (420 km) above Earth, with China’s Tiangong space station flying at a slightly lower altitude.

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