The Long March 6A rocket suffered an unexpected failure shortly after releasing its payload, the Yunhai-3 satellite.
It was the second launch of the Long March 6A rocket, built by launch vehicle manufacturer Shanghai Academic of Spaceflight Technology.
The first leg of the mission was a success, with the rocket ferrying its satellite payload to the intended sun-synchronous orbit within an hour of lift-off.
The purpose of the payload, the Yunhai-3 satellite, has been described by Chinese state media and the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology as being intended to conduct space environment and marine and atmospheric surveys. It also has the additional purposes of carrying out disaster-prevention surveillance and “scientific experiments” which is not further elaborated on.
Following the deployment of the satellite, the rocket body broke up at an estimated altitude of between 500–700 kilometres above Earth, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron.
The rocket broke up into around 50 pieces of debris, which will continue to orbit the Earth at a range of different altitudes, posing a serious threat to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.
Pieces of debris from the rocket were observed by amateur and professional astronomers alike, with one posting to Twitter a series of photos of his observations.
“This evening I observed 43(!!) pieces of Debris of the CZ-6A rocket that broke up in space after being launched 2 days ago. All pieces were tumbling fast, giving very distinct flash patterns,” said Dutch astronomer Cees Bassa on Twitter.
The debris is also expected to orbit the Earth for quite a long time due to orbiting at a height where there is very little of Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, there will be only small amounts of atmospheric drag experienced by the debris, meaning that it will take several years to de-orbit.
China has been making headlines with its space endeavours over the last few months, for both the right and wrong reasons.
It attracted international criticism for allowing its 25-tonne Long March 5A rocket to perform two uncontrolled re-entries in the last six months.
Rather than limiting these dangerous launches, China has recently announced it will significantly increase the number of Long March 5B launches, using the massive rocket to launch a new satellite constellation.
China also just recently finished the construction of its Tiangong space station, which is the “third step” of its manned space program.
Liam McAneny is a journalist who has written and edited for his University International Relations journal. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Wollongong in 2021. He joined Momentum Media in 2022 and currently writes for SpaceConnect and Australian Aviation. Liam has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations as well as astronomy.
Send Liam an email at: [email protected]
Receive the latest developments and updates on Australia’s space industry direct to your inbox. Subscribe today to Space Connect here.