Chinese authorities confirmed that the Long March 6A rocket had been destroyed in space by the payload being withdrawn. The debris was scattered in low earth orbit around the same spot where many Starlink satellites of Elon Musk are located. This increases the risk of collisions, which could lead to more space debris.
The US Space Force reports that the rocket was broken up into 50 pieces at an altitude between 500 and 700 km from Earth. It is interesting to note that the orbit at 500 km above the Earth is used by Starlink communications satellites. However, the International Space Station is (ISS) and China’s Tiangong orbits are slightly lower.
Representatives of the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the incident is not a threat to the ISS or the Chinese station. It is known that the rocket was carrying the Yunhai-3 satellite for ocean remote sensing. It was launched successfully into orbit on November 12. The cause of the rocket’s destruction is still unknown. Long March 6A is a small three-stage rocket that uses mainly time-tested technology and low-cost kerosene to fuel. Chinese officials stated earlier that this type of rocket is reliable for space launches.
The rocket’s design allows for the upper stage to be dropped on the Earth in a single piece, completely burning in the atmosphere. One Dutch astronomer said that he could count 43 fragments. In astronautics, the normal procedure is to remove the rocket from orbit following the delivery of cargo or dump fuel in order to avoid such problems. Indirect data shows that problems can arise when excess fuel is being dumped.
According to SCMP in Hong Kong, the Chinese military have called on their government after events in Ukraine. This suggests that the Starlink satellite network could be a threat to national security for the Middle Kingdom. One proposed method is to create space debris fragments in an orbit that are scattered around the earth, which would cause multiple collisions with satellites and disable the communication network.
A computer simulation by Chinese military researchers also showed that a thermonuclear blast in near space can form a radioactive cloud capable reaching 500 km above the earth, which would be enough to disable satellites.
On condition of anonymity, a Beijing scientist claimed that the incident was probably unintentional. China’s space facilities could have been damaged by the debris. Although the chances of the debris hitting Earth are low, it will likely fall to Earth in a few years. However, unexpected situations with Chinese missiles can happen occasionally.