Problematic launch expected as China finalizes space station

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China's Long March 5B rocket heads to the launch pad on Tuesday.

China’s Long March 5B rocket heads to the launch pad on Tuesday.
Screenshot: CCTV/CNSA

China rolled out its Long March 5B rocket on Tuesday ahead of its upcoming liftoff to place the third and final piece of the Tiangong Space Station in orbit. This is all very exciting, but an out of control core module will likely result, as it has three times.

The heavy rocket was flown to the pad on Tuesday, carrying a 23-ton laboratory module named Mengtian (which translates to “dreaming of the sky”). It took the Long March 5B about three hours to travel nearly 3 km to the Wenchang spacecraft launch site, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

At the pad, the rocket will undergo final checks and refueling in preparation for launch. The space agency has not confirmed an exact launch date, but previous statements suggest the rocket will lift off on Monday, October 31. according to Space.com.

Mengtian will join its sister modules Wentian and Tianhe to form the T-shaped structure of China’s three-module space station named Tiangong (meaning “paradise place”). The Chinese space agency will use the Mengtian laboratory to conduct various microgravity experiments related to fluid physics, combustion science and space technology, according to the Chinese state-owned company Xinhua. Unlike Tianhe, Mengtian does not include accommodations for astronauts.

Tiangong is China’s answer to the International Space Station and is expected to be fully built by the end of the year. The space station‘s first module, Tianhe, was launched into orbit in April 2021, while Wentian followed more than a year later in July 2022.

In June, China sent a crew of three astronauts to the space station where they have spent the last few months supervising the docking of the two modules, in addition to installing them and carrying out tests. The crew is expected to return to Earth in December, after which the Shenzhou-15 crew will take over.

Similar to previous launches of the Chinese Long March 5B , the core stage is expected to perform an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere on its return. Astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is “95% certain that we will be in exactly the same situation again,” he told Gizmodo in an email.

The Long March 5B is known to jeopardize populated areas as it falls back to Earth in a random state. Previous incidents have taken place in 2020 and 2021 in which the 100-foot-long (30-meter) core-stage debris crashed along the west coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Last August, Debris from Long March 5B fell in northern areas of Borneo. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

China is making huge breakthroughs in space, but its space agency continues to be reckless when it comes to its rockets. Rockets are often built with mechanisms to control their re-entry into isolated areas or slow them down when they return to Earth. If China plans to send more of its heavy rockets into orbit, it needs to start equipping them better for the return.

After: Suspected Chinese rocket debris falls on three Indian villages

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