On Saturday, a Chinese rocket sent to space last year returned to Earth, leaving a trail of debris over India and initially spurring rumors that it may have been a comet.
Losing energy and altitude with each cycle around the earth
The rocket was the third stage of a (Chang Zheng) Long March 3B (CZ-3B). It was launched on February 4, 2021, from China’s Xichang satellite launch center and actually made it to orbit where it should have stayed for a long, long time.
However, after about a year it started losing altitude and energy every time it completed a cycle around the earth eventually leading back to its descent and reentry.
“Every time the rocket went through perigee it lost some energy due to drag from the atmosphere, and so it didn’t go as high to apogee on the next loop: the apogee steadily decreases until you get reentry,” explained astronomer Jonathan McDowell on Twitter.
Video was captured of the event and showed blazing debris resembling a comet streaking through the skies over Maharashtra state in India. As such many assumed it may have indeed been a comet but further research revealed it was a defunct rocket.
Not the first time
This isn’t the first time a Chinese rocket has returned to Warth. Early in April 2020, a Chinese rocket fell mid-launch while carrying an Indonesian communications satellite.
Then, a mere month later, a huge chunk of debris that was part of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket – which successfully launched into orbit on May 5, 2020 from Wenchang Space Center in South Hainan province, China – crashed back down to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, landing into the Atlantic Ocean off the North-West African coast.
These incidents have garnered criticism from the space community, including NASA chief Bill Nelson. “It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.” Nelson wrote in a statement.