China sent the Yunhai 3 environmental monitoring satellite into orbit on Friday (November 11th), in the second launch of the country’s new Long March 6A rocket.
The Long March 6A lifted off from the hilly Taiyuan satellite launch center in northern China at 5:52 p.m. EST on November 11 (2252 GMT; 6:52 a.m. Beijing time on November 12), a few hours only before China launches its last freighter. assignment to the Tiangong Space Station.
The satellite has entered its intended orbit, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight (SAST), the public manufacturer of the launch vehicle, announcement (opens in a new tab) less than an hour after launch.
Related: The latest news on the Chinese space program
Little is known about the Yunhai 3 satellite. SAST and Chinese state media said it was designed to conduct atmospheric and marine environment surveys, space environment surveys, prevention and reduction of disasters and scientific experiments.
Yunhai 3 is now in orbit at an altitude of approximately 520 miles (840 kilometers) above Earth in a sun-synchronous orbit, or SSO, which means it passes over the poles and particular points on Earth at the same time every day.
However, part of the mission that did not go as planned was the performance of the upper stage of the rocket after Yunhai 3 was put into orbit. The spent rocket stage suffered a rupture event and is now in over 50 pieces at a range of altitudes, adding to the widespread threat of space debris in low Earth orbit.
The US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron announced the disbandment of the Long March 6A upper stage on Twitter (opens in a new tab) Sunday (November 13). The squadron said it was tracking more than 50 pieces associated with an estimated altitude of 310 miles to 435 miles (500 to 700 km) and “incorporating [this information] in routine conjunction assessment to support spaceflight safety.”
A number of observations were also made from the ground, illustrating the bursting and fragmentation of the rocket stage. Separate pieces tumble and spin rapidly, creating flash patterns as they catch sunlight.
Tonight I observed 43 (!!) pieces of debris from the CZ-6A rocket that shattered in space after being launched 2 days ago. All the pieces were rapidly tumbling, giving very distinct flash patterns. @18thSDS will have a challenge tracking and determining orbits for all of this. pic.twitter.com/HJCcwsyn1iNovember 13, 2022
The debris is orbiting at an altitude at which there are very few molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. This means that it will take many years for the fragments to be pulled out of orbit by atmospheric drag.
The latest figures from the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, indicate that there have been over 630 (opens in a new tab) ruptures, explosions, collisions or abnormal events in orbit resulting in the fragmentation of spacecraft or space debris.
This is not the first in-orbit fragmentation associated with a Yunhai satellite. The Yunhai 1 (02) satellite broke into several pieces following a collision with a piece of Russian rocket in March 2021.
Yunhai 3, meanwhile, is intact in its own orbit.
The Long March 6A rocket bears little resemblance to the much smaller Long March 6 rocket, although the latter is also manufactured by SAST and launched from Taiyuan. 6A is 164 feet (50 meters) tall with a first stage diameter of 11 feet (3.35 m). (The 6A, in turn, is smaller than China’s mighty Long March 5B rocket, whose 25-tonne main stages fall back to Earth from uncontrolled orbit after launches.)
The Long March 6A is the first Chinese rocket to combine a liquid-fueled middle stage with four solid propellant side boosters and had its first flight in March of this year. NASA’s now-retired space shuttle, in particular, used its own solid-liquid configuration.
The Yunhai 3 launch was China’s 50 in 2022, with the Tianzhou mission 5 hours later marking launch number 51. The country is on course to break its national record of 55 launches in a calendar year, which has was established in 2021.
Upcoming missions include a fourth mission for a commercial launch company Galactic Energya first flight of the Jielong 3 (smart dragon 3) rocket – developed by a spin-off company from China’s leading space contractor, which will be launched from a mobile offshore platform – and the crewed mission Shenzhou 15 to the Tiangong space station.
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