Spain Closed Airspace Due To Chinese Rocket Debris

Airspace in Spain was briefly closed last Friday, due to a huge piece of Chinese rocket falling to Earth, leading to hundreds of flight delays

The uncontrolled fallout from a Chinese rocket briefly closed the airspace over north eastern Spain last week, leading to hundreds of flight delays.

The Guardian reported that a hefty chunk of the massive Long March 5B rocket that was used to deliver the third module of China’s Tiangong space station, re-entered the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner.

This is not the first time that a rocket re-entering the atmosphere has made landfall. But it is relatively rare for space debris to be actually found on land, as pieces that do manage to survive the re-entry process, typically fall into the ocean.

Chinese rocket

But space debris does sometimes hit land.

Last year what was believed to be a piece of a SpaceX rocket’s second stage – which powers the rocket after the lower first stage expends all its fuel – landed on a farm in Washington state in the US.

Then in August 2022 a landowner in Australia uncovered a surprise, after chunks of space debris from a SpaceX mission was found on his farm.

There is reportedly an obligation under international space law to repatriate any debris to the country from where it originated.

Now according to the Guardian report, a large part of the Chinese Long March 5B (CZ-5B) rocket broke up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the south-central Pacific ocean last Friday.

The EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) operations centre, which monitored the fragment’s return to Earth, said the core stage of the rocket was about 30 metres long and weighed between 17 and 23 tonnes, making it “one of the largest pieces of debris re-entering in the near past”.

Its re-entry led Spain’s air navigation authority, Enaire, to impose restrictions on the airspace over north-eastern parts of the country, including Catalonia and the Balearic islands.

“Given the uncontrolled entry of remains from the Chinese space object CZ-5B in a descending orbit crossing our national territory, Enaire, in accordance with the recommendations of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the inter-ministerial directorates led by the Department of National Security, established an airspace exclusion zone of 100km on either side of the orbit of the space object,” the agency was quoted by the Guardian as saying in a statement.

A later update said the closure of the Spainish airspace, which lasted from 9.37am on Friday until 10.17am, had caused flight delays of half an hour.

Spain’s airport operator, Aena, said 300 of the 5,484 flights scheduled across its 46 airports were impacted, the Guardian reported.

At a regular briefing on Friday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, said the rocket’s re-entry into the atmosphere was a common international practice.

“It is understood that [this] type of rocket … uses special technology designed so the vast majority of components … will be destroyed by ablation during re-entry into the atmosphere, and the probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground is extremely low,” said Zhao.

Space debris

There is a well documented and growing problem of space debris and clutter, as there are reportedly nearly 30,000 satellites and other debris believed to be orbiting the planet.

In December last year, China alleged that satellites from Starlink, had two “close encounters” with the Chinese space station on 1 July and 21 October 2021.

SpaceX’s Starlink has been launching thousands of satellites into orbit for its satellite broadband service. There are now said to be more than 2,300 Starlink satellites in orbit (as of September 2022), although the intention is to eventually build a fleet of 42,000 constellation of satellites.

Musk tweeted in response to China’s accusations, that some Starlink satellite orbits had been adjusted to reduce the possibility of collisions.

Governments meanwhile are being urged to share location data of satellites to reduce the risk of catastrophic space collisions.

In November 2021 Russia was heavily criticised for blowing up a satellite in orbit, creating creating a dangerous debris cloud which can be lethal to astronauts when on a space walk.

Debris clouds can also be dangerous to space stations and other satellites.

Russia apparently resorted to blowing up the satellite because it could not be moved to burn up in the atmosphere.

NASA reportedly was forced to abruptly call off a spacewalk at the end of November 2021, citing risks posed by space debris.

China began constructing its space station in April 2021 with the launch of Tianhe.

The station is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 after four crewed missions.