Africa Among China’s Rocket Potential Crash Locations

A Long March 5B rocket, carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module, lifting off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China on April 29. Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

China’s Long March 5B rocket will make an uncontrolled re-entry into the planet over the weekend. The likelihood of damage to life or property is low, as experts expect a safe crash into the water. Nonetheless, there are concerns amidst the uncertainty, especially regarding Africa.

On Thursday, the Aerospace Corporation predicted re-entry would occur on 09 May 2021 at 03:43 UTC ± 16 hours. The Corporation further expects debris could shower down over north-eastern Africa, over Sudan. However, per the Corporation, it is still too early to determine a significant debris footprint.

Aerospace Corporation’s prediction guide for Long March 5B’s descent.

The rocket measures 30m long and 5m wide and weighs 21 metric tons. It’s travelling on an elliptical path around the Earth, measuring roughly 370 km high by 170 km low. It could scatter debris across the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, Africa, Europe, or Russia.

The CZ-5b rocket body with id number 48275 launched on April 29, 2021, aboard the Tianhe mission. Unlike standard rocket bodies, which do not reach orbit due to an intentional parabolic suborbital trajectory, the Long March 5B rocket made it to orbit along with the Tianhe module. Without engines to steer the rocket towards the ocean, the rocket’s macabre descent to earth will be guided only by gravity.

This is not Africa’s first incident with space debris. China’s Long March-5B (the same type of rocket), which launched on Tuesday 5th of May 2020, made a similar uncontrolled re-entry. The U.S. Air Force reported that it re-entered over the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, 11th of May, 2020. However, Pictures posted on social media showed what appeared to be a 12-meter-long pipe originating from the rocket that had landed in the village of Mahounou, Ivory Coast. Jonathan McDowell, of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, opined that the timing of the incidents coupled with the villages’ location suggested they were from the rocket. Local reports suggested the pipe fell on a cheesemaker’s building in the Mahounou village in the Bocanda region. Another report said that a house in a village called N’guinou had also been damaged by falling debris. no casualties were reported.

China is a party to the Liability Convention. The Liability Convention governs issues resulting from damages caused by Space Objects, of which the Long March-5B is one. The Liability Convention ensures that damage caused on the surface of the Earth will absolute liability.

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