Chinese rocket body breaks up in orbit after successful satellite launch

A Long March 6A rocket on the pad at Taiyuan spaceport in November 2022, ahead of launch of the Yunhai 3 satellite.
A Long March 6A rocket on the pad at Taiyuan spaceport in November 2022, ahead of launch of the Yunhai 3 satellite. (Image credit: OurSpace)

China sent the Yunhai 3 environmental monitoring satellite into orbit on Friday (Nov. 11), on the second launch of the nation's new Long March 6A rocket. 

The Long March 6A lifted off from the hilly Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in north China at 5:52 p.m. EST on Nov. 11 (2252 GMT; 6:52 a.m. Beijing time on Nov. 12), just hours before China launched its latest cargo mission to the Tiangong space station.

The satellite entered its intended orbit, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight (SAST), the state-owned manufacturer of the launch vehicle, announced (opens in new tab) within an hour of launch.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

Little is known about the Yunhai 3 satellite. SAST and Chinese state media have said that it's designed to perform atmospheric and marine environment surveys, space environment surveys, disaster prevention and reduction work, and scientific experiments. 

Yunhai 3 is now orbiting at an altitude of around 520 miles (840 kilometers) above Earth in a  sun-synchronous orbit, or SSO, which means it passes over the poles and particular spots on Earth at the same time every day.

One part of the mission that did not go according to plan, however, is the performance of the rocket’s upper stage after it released Yunhai 3 into orbit. The spent rocket stage suffered a breakup event and is now in more than 50 pieces at a range of altitudes, adding to the generalized threat of space debris in low Earth orbit.

The U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron announced the breakup of the Long March 6A upper stage on Twitter (opens in new tab) on Sunday (Nov. 13). The squadron stated that it was tracking more than 50 associated pieces at an estimated altitude of 310 miles to 435 miles (500 to 700 km) and "incorporating [this information] into routine conjunction assessment to support spaceflight safety."

A number of observations have also been made from the ground, illustrating the breakup and fragmentation of the rocket stage. Distinct pieces are tumbling and rotating quickly, creating flash patterns as they catch sunlight.

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The debris is orbiting at an altitude at which there are very few molecules from Earth’s atmosphere. This means it will take many years for the fragments to be brought out of orbit by atmospheric drag.

The latest figures from the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office at Darmstadt, Germany, state that there have been more than 630 (opens in new tab) breakups, explosions, collisions, or anomalous events in orbit resulting in fragmentation of spacecraft or space junk.

It is not the first in-orbit fragmentation associated with a Yunhai satellite. The Yunhai 1 (02) satellite broke into numerous pieces following a suspected collision with a chunk of a Russian rocket in March 2021. 

Yunhai 3, meanwhile, is intact in its own orbit. 

Launch of the second Long March 6A rocket from Taiyuan spaceport on Nov. 11, 2022, carrying the Yunhai 3 satellite into orbit.

Launch of the second Long March 6A rocket from Taiyuan spaceport on Nov. 11, 2022, carrying the Yunhai 3 satellite into orbit.  (Image credit: OurSpace)

The Long March 6A bears little resemblance to the much smaller Long March 6 rocket, though the latter is also manufactured by SAST and launches from Taiyuan. The 6A is 164 feet (50 meters) tall with a first stage diameter of 11 feet (3.35 m). (The 6A, in turn, is smaller than China's powerful Long March 5B rocket, whose 25-ton core stages fall back to Earth from orbit uncontrolled following launches.)

The Long March 6A is China’s first rocket to bundle together a liquid-fueled core stage with four solid-propellant side boosters and had its first flight in March this year. NASA's now-retired space shuttle, notably, used its own solid-liquid configuration.

The Yunhai 3 launch was China’s 50th of 2022, with the Tianzhou 5 mission hours later marking launch number 51. The country is on course to smash its national record of 55 launches in a calendar year, which was set in 2021.

Upcoming missions include a fourth mission for commercial launch firm Galactic Energy, a first flight of the Jielong 3 (Smart Dragon 3) rocket — developed by a spinoff company from China's main space contractor, which will launch from a mobile offshore platform — and the Shenzhou 15 crewed mission to the Tiangong space station.

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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 (opens in new tab).