Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Re-entry of "Long March 5B" highlights problem of space debris - expert comment

Professor Don Pollacco of the University of Warwick Department of Physics comments:

"The re-entry of the Chinese rocket launcher called “Long March 5b” is expected over the next few days. This launch is providing parts for the new Chinese space station (there are an additional 9 launches before the station is operational). By any standards this is a large item and significant parts of it are likely to survive re-entry and reach the surface. Fortunately, the landing zone is likely to be over the ocean (most likely the Pacific), however, re-entry calculations are extremely uncertain and the spacecraft will be moving in an unpredictable way. It is extremely unlikely the rocket could reach the UK, but the southern states of the US and Europe do have some exposure.

"A similar event happened a few years ago and the rocket landed safely in the Pacific. However, it was said if the time of re-entry had been in error by just 15 minutes then parts of the US would have been at risk.

"Re-entry events are likely to become more common as we launch many more satellites into orbit – there are thousands of new satellites licensed. Space debris is becoming a significant risk and it is expected that each country takes responsibility for its own. This doesn’t just include deorbiting launchers but also decommissioned satellites. There are thousands of tons of debris orbiting close to the earth and collisions creating more fragments are becoming more frequent. We need to take action to understand the debris population before the collision risk in certain orbits becomes significant – making them unusable."

7 May 2021


Sheila Kiggins

Media Relations Manager

University of Warwick

07876 218166