Chinese Rocket Explodes Upon Reentry Into Atmosphere Over California

Source: X/dopehorse / TeahCartel

Californians woke up to a jaw-dropping sight in the early hours of Tuesday morning as golden streaks from an apparent explosion lit up the sky over Los Angeles. 

Was it the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from six hours earlier, or perhaps a colossal meteor putting on a fiery show as it raced through the atmosphere? The mystery had everyone buzzing!

Blazing Object A Part Of China’s Shenzhou-15 Rocket

Heather Golden, a spokesperson for the Aerospace Corporation – a federally funded space research and development center – said that despite speculations that the explosion belonged to SpaceX, an analysis revealed it wasn’t a US-owned rocket.

Source: X/AsianHeraldNews

Instead, Golden said: ‘Our analysis suggests that the object seen re-entering over Los Angeles this morning was the orbital module from the November 2022 Chinese Shenzhou-15 launch to their space station.’ 

Orbital Module Not Designed To Re-enter Earth’s Atmosphere

The 3,300-pound chunk, known as an orbital module—a secondary piece of the rocket— was not designed to safely come back to Earth’s atmosphere. It was meant to be just another piece of space clutter circling our planet.

Source: X/alexriesart

People who saw the explosion shared videos on social media, capturing the object zooming across the sky around 1:40 a.m. PT. They were puzzled and asked what it could be. 

Reentries May Resemble Meteors

Golden said ‘reentries can often look like shooting stars (meteors) with a bright central body followed by a long, dazzling tail and often break into numerous fragments.’

Source: Wikimedia/Navicore

She added that if the object ‘appears to be a tight cluster of bright points all moving in the same direction at similar speeds, and all leaving streaks behind them, then it is very probably a reentry breakup.’

Social Media Reactions

One person on X said, ‘I’m guessing this is debris or something else related to the SpaceX launch from earlier this evening,’ while another simply asked, ‘Dude, what was that?’ 

Source: X/Dcr_congrong

As news spread that it was a piece from a Chinese-owned rocket, comments about China’s involvement started popping up. ‘China out there just doing whatever they want,’ wrote one person on X.

Breakdown Of The Parts Of Shenzhou-15

The Shenzhou-15 rocket, weighing 17,857 pounds, consists of different modules. There’s the reentry module, which carries the astronauts back to Earth safely, and the service section, where hardware like solar panels and life support gear is kept for the mission. 

Source: X/Kanthan2030 and Wikimedia/中国新闻网

Shenzhou-15’s third section, the orbital module, is like a home in space for astronauts. It’s where they live and work. It also hosts scientific instruments, crew-operated equipment, and other kinds of payload needed for the mission.

First Take-Off Of Shenzhou-15 

In November 2022, China’s Shenzhou-15 rocket blasted off with three astronauts from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Their mission? To help finish building China’s Tiangong Space Station, its orbital outpost. 

Source: X/frederickcheng5

The reentry module of Shenzhou-15 safely returned to Earth in June of last year. According to the Aerospace Corporation’s tracking site, it estimated that the Shenzhou-15 orbital module would reenter the Earth’s atmosphere at 1:33 a.m. GMT on Tuesday.

No Reports Of Debris Crashing On Land

There haven’t been any reports yet about debris from the orbital module crashing on land, and some might have ended up in the Pacific Ocean, according to University of Southern California space relations expert Madhu Thangavelu.

Source: X/CNSpaceflight

He told BBC that he’s just “hoping all of it burnt out in the upper atmosphere.” This isn’t the first time one of China’s rockets has gone rogue.

Not the First Or The Biggest Crashing Chinese Space Debris

The Shenzhou 15 space module wasn’t the first large piece of Chinese space junk to come crashing down dramatically, and it certainly wasn’t the biggest. The hefty 23-ton core stage of China’s powerful Long March 5B rocket, which helped assemble Tiangong, plunged back to Earth without control.

Source: X/AndySaunders_1

These debris landings have sparked criticism from many in the space community, including top folks at NASA and the European Space Agency, who call them reckless and risky.

Becoming A Regular Occurrence

Space debris showers are becoming more common lately. Just last March, Californians were treated to a dazzling light show when a piece of debris from the International Space Station burned up in the sky. 

Source: X/NOAADebris

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about one piece of space junk enters Earth’s atmosphere every day. But fear not! The fragments, like the ones seen over California on Tuesday, don’t pose any risk to us down here.

Chinese Rocket Brings Back Memories

The sight of a China-owned rocket in American airspace might also have reminded people of the spy balloon incident in the Midwest in 2023. That balloon had drifted east and entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, and it was tracked as it passed over Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where nuclear assets are stored.

Source: Wikimedia/中央通訊社

Intelligence officials disclosed in December that the balloon used an American internet service provider to communicate.

Balloon Linked To A US Based-Company

The report mentioned that the balloon was linked to a US-based company and was communicating with China regarding its navigation. 

Source: Reuters/Chase Doark

It also mentioned that the connection “allowed the balloon to send burst transmissions or high-bandwidth collections of data over short periods of time” to its home base in China.

Mysterious Balloon Causes Diplomatic Rift

The balloon resulted in a diplomatic rift between the U.S. and China that made Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancel a scheduled trip to Beijing. U-2 spy planes were sent to examine the balloon while it was still in the air. They found that the balloon was equipped with devices to collect “signals intelligence,” officials said.

Source: Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest/US Forest Service

China predictably denies that the balloon had any espionage facilities. They called it a ‘civilian airship’ that had been blown off course over the U.S. during weather research. They subsequently sent an apology for its ‘unintentional entry’ into U.S. airspace.

Military Goes All Out To Retrieve Mysterious Ballon

The military went all out, led by the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2, to fish the balloon out of the water after it came down. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck mentioned the balloon was as tall as a 200-foot building and as heavy as about three buses.

Source: Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza

Military officials revealed that the Pentagon knew about Chinese spy balloons sneaking into U.S. airspace three times during Trump’s time and once after.

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Mary Scrantin

Written by Mary Scrantin

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