China has made few friends lately with the serial, uncontrolled reentries of the spent first stages of its Long March 5B spacecraft, which have posed potential threats to populations on the ground. Now, as the South China Morning Post reports, a Chinese rocket has created yet another mess—this time in orbit 500 km (310 mi.) above Earth, at an altitude that could imperil SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.
At a media briefing on Monday in Beijing, a foreign ministry spokeswoman acknowledged that the first stage of a Chinese Long March 6A rocket had broken up in orbit after delivering an ocean observation satellite to space. The first stage typically reenters the atmosphere and burns up on its way down. Preparatory to reentry, the stage dumps its unused fuel, and a possible explosion during that exercise is thought to have led to the break-up. It is also possible that the stage disintegrated when it collided with another piece of space debris.
Whatever the cause, the mishap spells trouble. One scientist from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy reported observing more than 40 fragments “tumbling fast, giving very distinct flash patterns.”
The incident has caused some speculation that the break-up was deliberate, since China is on-record objecting to the Starlink constellation, claiming that it could threaten the country’s national security—a worry that has only grown as the constellation has aided Ukraine in its war with Russia by providing the Ukrainian military with broadband service.
But there is also good reason China would not have an incentive to engineer such an incident: China’s Tiangong space station is circling the Earth in a somewhat lower orbit, and could be in the path of the debris as it descends.
“There are three Chinese astronauts up there,” one Beijing-based space scientist, who asked that his name be withheld due to the sensitivity of the issue, told the Morning Post. “The chance that [the debris] will hit the space station is low, but I don’t think anyone would be willing to add to the risk.”