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Rocket Debris and Risks Associated

Context

Recently, large fragments of China’s Long March 5B rocket fell into the south-central Pacific Ocean uncontrollably. The US Space Command confirmed this. The fragments were from the rocket that delivered the Tiangong space station’s third and final module.

Relevance

GS Paper 3: Awareness in the fields of IT, Space, Computers, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and issues relating to intellectual property rights.

Mains Question

What do you mean by space debris? Discuss some of the technologies that could be used to solve the problem in the future. (250 words)


Space station in China

  • Tiangong is the Chinese space station.
    • In May 2021, China launched Tianhe, the first of three modules for the orbiting space station.
  • The country intends to complete construction of the station by the end of 2022.
    • In June 2021, China launched three astronauts into orbit to begin the country’s new space station’s occupation.
  • Tiangong will be much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), with only three modules compared to the ISS’s 16 modules.
  • Recently, large fragments of China’s Long March 5B rocket fell into the south-central Pacific Ocean uncontrollably.
  • According to reports, it was one of the largest pieces of debris re-entering the atmosphere in the recent past.

Dangerous Linkage

  • A few days ago, China launched its Long March 5B rocket, carrying the third and final module of the Tiangong space station.
    • China currently sends its heaviest payloads into space on the Long March 5B.
    • For the most recent mission, the rocket carried Mengtian, a science laboratory module, to Tiangong.
  • During re-entry, the rocket broke up and plunged uncontrollably into the south central Pacific Ocean.
  • One of the pieces was left over from the rocket’s core stage, which was about 30 metres long and weighed between 17 and 23 tonnes.

Dangerous Relationship

  • Because of the risk, Spain’s air navigation authority shut down parts of its airspace for about 40 minutes due to the uncontrolled entry of remains from the Chinese space object.
  • However, security experts claim that the chances of humans being hit were extremely low.
  • Worryingly, the rocket stage was not designed with a system to ensure that it fell in a specific location on Earth.

Criticism

  • The uncontrollable return of a rocket’s core stage has raised concerns about who is responsible for space junk.
  • The Chinese space agency has also been chastised for failing to adhere to international standards when designing the rocket.
    • The international standard is to design rockets so that upon re-entry, they disintegrate into smaller pieces.
    • Creating objects that disintegrate upon atmospheric re-entry is difficult because it requires the use of materials with low melting points, such as aluminium.
    • In the case of rockets, this can be costly because the materials used to house fuel, such as titanium, require extremely high temperatures to burn up.
    • The sheer size of such objects makes disintegration difficult as well.
  • The current incident has also raised concerns about the safety and security of the world’s human population.

Examples of uncontrolled returns in the past

  • This was the fourth time something similar had happened with a Chinese rocket.
    • During the rocket’s first deployment in May 2020, fragments landed in Ivory Coast, causing some building damage; o Debris from the second and third flights fell into the Indian Ocean and near the Philippines, respectively.
  • China also faced criticism after using a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites in 2007.
  • This had resulted in a debris field, which other governments warned could endanger other satellites.

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