NewsLong march rocket debris crash raises safety concerns in China

Long march rocket debris crash raises safety concerns in China

A fragment of the Long March 2C rocket fell on the village of Xianqiao in southern China.
A fragment of the Long March 2C rocket fell on the village of Xianqiao in southern China.
Images source: © Licensor | Chris Combs
Paweł Maziarz

24 June 2024 15:03

The Chinese space programme still has a lot to catch up on, especially regarding rocket launch safety. Videos have emerged on Chinese social media showing debris from a Chinese space rocket falling on a village in southwestern China.

The rocket in question is the Long March 2C, which was launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The rocket sent the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) satellite into orbit, developed by China and France for studying the most distant star explosions, known as gamma-ray bursts.

Saturday’s launch was deemed a major success by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). However, it seems the dangerous fall of rocket debris on the Xianqiao village in the southern Guizhou province was overlooked.

Chinese rocket crashed into a village

Chinese social media has videos depicting the moment the rocket debris fell on a Chinese village. A pale-yellow streak in the sky can also be clearly seen.

According to social media reports, witnesses heard a loud explosion after the rocket fragment fell. An eyewitness told CNN that he saw the falling rocket with his own eyes, heard an explosion, and experienced a sharp smell after it hit the ground.

As CNN reports, the Chinese government issued a notice informing about plans to conduct a mission to recover the rocket debris. Officials warned residents to stay away from the remains to prevent the effects caused by explosions and toxic gas. A strict ban on taking photos of the rocket and spreading recordings online was also introduced. However, the information was removed from the web.

Expert warns of rocket fall consequences

Markus Schiller, a rocket expert and senior research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told CNN that the videos likely show the first stage of the Long March 2C rocket, which uses a liquid propellant consisting of nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH).

"This combination always creates orange smoke trails. It's extremely toxic and carcinogenic," Schiller said. "Any living being inhaling this substance will have difficulties shortly."

Schiller noted that such incidents often occur in China due to the launch site’s location.

"If you want to launch something into low Earth orbit, you usually launch it eastward to gain extra thrust from Earth's rotation. But if the launch is in the east, villages are always in the path of the first stage boosters."

Multistage rockets are designed to discard stages along predictable trajectories after launch. Before every launch, the Chinese civil aviation authority usually issues a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to warn pilots of "temporary danger areas" where rocket debris may fall.

A well-known problem with Chinese rockets

It's worth noting that the international space community has previously criticised China for handling rocket engine debris. Similar incidents have occurred in the past. In December 2023, rocket debris fell in the southern Hunan province, damaging two houses. Similarly, in 2002, fragments of a launched satellite fell on a village in the Shaanxi province, injuring a boy.

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