Heads up! Chinese rocket debris crashes back to Earth after recent launch

Rocket debris has been discovered downrange from a recent rocket launch from Xichang in southwest China.

China successfully launched a Long March 3B rocket on March 9, sending a Beidou navigation satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit around Earth.

However, while the launch sent the satellite into orbit without a hitch, a side-booster from the three-stage rocket landed downrange from the Xichang launch site. The 7.4-foot (2.25-meter) diameter rocket segment appeared to be sticking up out of the ground, according to social media footage.

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Fortunately, the spent booster did not fall on anyone's private property, which happened with an earlier launch in November 2019. Additionally, and thankfully, the runaway booster didn't endanger anyone's safety or life. 

The post on social media didn't state the location of the debris, but comments on the posted video commented that they recognized people speaking in the video to have accents that fit Guizhou province. This region would also match the airspace closure areas which were issued ahead of the launch.

These closure areas, also known as drop zones, are calculated for each of these launches and the affected areas issued with notices. These notices call for the people who live in these nearby areas to evacuate and to not approach wreckage, which is likely to be contaminated with the rocket’s toxic hypergolic propellant.

China's first three launch sites were built deep inland during the Cold War for security reasons. This means that their boosters drop segments and stages over land, rather than out to sea.

Stacking of the Long March 3B at Xichang. (Image credit: CASC)

China opened the coastal Wenchang spaceport in 2016 to launch a new generation of rockets. On Monday (March 16), China launched a new Long March 7A rocket from the new space center, but unfortunately, the launch ended in failure

The Long March 7A was designed to, hopefully, eventually replace the older Long March 3B and reduce the danger of debris. However, the launch suffered an unknown anomaly and the rocket and its payload failed to reach orbit. This means that the new launcher will likely be grounded for a considerable time until the issue is isolated and fixed.

China has launched six times this year so far, with one failure to-date. The country is aiming to conduct more than 40 launches throughout 2020, with Xichang to be the busiest launch site. 

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.

  • Sam
    The rocket is not sticking up out of ground. The nose is resting on the ground and the tail is on a higher spot.. Amazing that there is very little damage. They should truck it back and reuse it. Soyuz does the same thing. I think it is because they go into a flat spin.