Australian company snaps image of Chinese rocket falling to earth.

An Australian-based company has snapped remarkable images of the Chinese Long March 5 rocket core tumbling to Earth.

The uncontrolled space debris is the size of a 10-storey building, weighs 22.5 tons and is flying thousands of kilometres per second, a few hundred kilometres above our heads. And it’s out of control.

Global space operations organisations have been tracking the spent Chinese booster rocket since shortly after its launch on Monday. 

At 2.30 pm Wednesday, Australian-based space situational awareness company HEO Robotics captured four images of it.

It was no easy task.

The camera-carrying satellite and rogue rocket body were moving at a relative speed of 8.3km/second. They passed within 355km of each other. The opportunity lasted just 0.3 of a second. 

“We’re very fortunate that the snap captured exactly where the rocket body was and captured four image frames,” says HEO’s Dane Brumm.

The happy snap confirmed the accuracy of available tracking information. A fraction of a second either way would have produced an empty frame.

Now, the grainy pictures are adding more to the Chinese rocket’s story.

The raw snapshots appear to show little more than a streak.

HEO’s analysts and analyst software have a good idea of what’s behind the blur. 

“We look at open source data to find out what the object is, how big it’s supposed to be, and what its intended shape should be,” says Brumm.

Filtration algorithms blow up the image, compress the pixels to counteract motion distortion and attempt to match the result with what’s expected to be there.

“If we were supposed to image a 33 metres long object, but we captured something that’s 100 metres long, then we know that that’s probably not the right object – or the supplied information is wrong,” he adds.

The devil is always in the detail.

Is the Chinese rocket behaving as expected? Is it breaking up? Where, and when, will it crash back down to Earth?

Transparent skies

“We can confirm it’s approximately 26 metres long,” says Brumm. That means the booster is likely to be what China says it is.

But the enhanced space-to-space pictures also reveal a lot about the object.

Rocket blasts off
An earlier launch of a Long March 5B rocket which lifts off from the Wenchang launch site on China’s southern Hainan island on May 5, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Different materials reflect light differently. Everything from the paint job to varying alloys provide distinguishing points of light.

“If you get a really good image to enhance, and depending on how close we actually can get to an object, we’re able to see anomalies in it,” Brumm adds.

That means missing components, improperly deployed equipment or even debris impacts. “So you can do damage assessments, determine an object’s rotation, verify orbits. Even small things like if various solar panels are correctly deployed.”

All this paints a picture of what the out-of-control object really is, what it’s doing and where it’s going.

“Space traffic as a field is still very young,” adds Held. “Think of it like how air traffic control was in 1922 – a lot of barnstorming biplanes and maybe some regional airstrip control but no global system. This is what Saber is building. We see sensor providers like HEO Robotics as critical parts of that infrastructure.”

From Cosmos 2015: Cleaning up Spacejunk

Broken arrow

The Long March 5B (CZ-5B) heavy-lift rocket blasted off from China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan on Monday. It carried the third and final module of China’s new Tiangong (Palace in the Sky) Space Station into an orbit where it could manoeuvre into a docking position.

But, once the rocket’s job was complete, the booster core was left to tumble its way back down to the surface of the Earth, hopefully in an uninhabited place.

Out-of-control Chinese Long March rockets are not new. Alarms were raised in 2020, 2021 and one broke up as it re-entered over Malaysia in July this year. 

Pieces of a SpaceX spacecraft launched in 2020 were embedded in a sheep farmer’s fields after re-entering the atmosphere in July. 

Jason Held, CEO of Saber Astronautics – the company running the Mission Control centre at the Australian Space Agency’s headquarters at Lot 14 in Adelaide – says the problem is growing. 

“Uncontrolled deorbit happens fairly frequently, and people had a ‘big sky little bullet’ view of events in the past. But the number of events is increasing.”

The risk of being killed is minimal. And there have been few incidents of property damage reported so far.

“We can expect that risk to triple over the next 10 years,” Held warns.

Analysis of the CZ5 B’s orbit suggests it is likely to re-enter the atmosphere sometime early Sunday morning (Australian time). But the margin of error on the calculations stands at about 14 hours as of Thursday afternoon. This will continue to be whittled down as the rocket falls.

Space station
A model of China’s space station in the “T” configuration is pictured at the Shanghai Planetarium in Shanghai, China. On Nov 3, 2022, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the Mengtian laboratory module of the space station has successfully completed its transposition. (Photo CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Later this month, global space tracking and monitoring services from government, militaries and commercial operators will combine resources to assess “real-time” simulated space “incidents”.

Called SACT, Saber Astronautics will be coordinating the Pacific region’s response with organisations like HEO Robotics working to figure out how to quickly sift through as much real-world, commercial, open source and defence data as possible. 

“No single commercial supplier is able to view a complete picture of the sky, and it actually takes the aggregate of suppliers to see what is happening,” Held says.

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