Space debris

Spain closes part of airspace due to risks posed by Chinese rocket debris

Image credit: Getty Images

A section of the Long March 5B (CZ-5B) rocket has fallen back to Earth uncontrolled, triggering the closure of some of Spain’s airspace and leading to hundreds of flight delays.

Spain briefly declared an official 'no-fly' zone in the region of Catalonia over fear of the risks posed by the uncontrolled fall of part of the rocket used to deliver China’s Tiangong space station.  

Barcelona and Ibiza airports were among those impacted by the grounding, which lasted around 40 minutes on Friday.

The EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) operations centres, 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”. 

The rocket blasted off on October 31 2022 from southern China to deliver the last module of the country's space station, which is currently under construction. As gravity pulled the projectile back to Earth, most of it was expected to burn up on re-entry, but there were concerns significant fragments may survive.

The European Union Space Surveillance and Tracking service had said on its website that the "statistical probability of an impact on the ground in populated areas" was low, with the remnant expected to land somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

However, it warned southern Italy, as well as northern Spain and Portugal were also in the trajectory.

“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,” Spain’s air navigation authority, Enaire, said. 

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman at the Chinese foreign ministry, said the rocket was designed so most of its components would be destroyed on re-entry and "the probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground is extremely low".

The remnant of the rocket finally fell in the Pacific Ocean, almost 1,000km southwest of Acapulco in Mexico.

Over the last few years, discussions surrounding the dangers of space debris have intensified, particularly following the publication of a study Nature Astronomy, which estimated the chance of falling rocket and satellite parts getting through the Earth’s atmosphere and hurting people, over the next ten years.

Last year, Nasa accused Beijing of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” after parts of an 18-tonne Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean. Four years before, the country’s first space station crashed into the Pacific Ocean and, in 2007, China came under pressure after using a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites, creating a field of debris that other governments said may jeopardise other satellites.

There has been considerable discussion by space agencies, lawmakers and private companies about how to tackle this problem, ranging from policy suggestions (such as the introduction of orbital-use fees) to high-tech active space clean-ups (using satellites armed with claws, nets, magnets and other devices).

In September, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reduce the deadline for the removal of unused satellites in low-Earth orbit from 25 years to five.

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