Russian rocket launch: Out-of-control spacecraft hurtling towards Earth

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 05 January 2022 13:22
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An out-of-control Russian rocket is falling towards Earth.

The rocket was part of a test conducted by the Russian space agency last week. While it was hailed as a success initially, the upper part of the rocket failed to properly burn, and a section of the spacecraft is now tumbling back down to Earth.

The development of Russia’s Angara A5 rocket has already faced difficulties. It had a successful first flight in 2014, but did not launch again until another successful flight in 2020 – the latest launch was the follow-up, and the last of its test flights saw it mounted with a new upper stage.

That upper stage, named Persei, was supposed to carry a dummy payload into a stable and higher orbit, as it might when it is used for full launches. But that did not happen, and the Persei stage and its payload began falling back down to Earth.

Trackers show the object is at about 140,000 metres, and plunging fast. Its speed and the uncontrolled nature of the descent mean that predicting where and when it might finally end up is difficult.

Most of the debris is likely to burn up as the rocket arrives in the atmosphere, and any pieces will probably be small enough to avoid any major damage. But it is yet another example of dangerous space debris falling back down to Earth, after a closely-tracked Chinese rocket made the same journey last year, and amid numerous warnings from experts about the impact of uncontrolled pieces of spacecraft.

Like that Chinese rocket, the Long March 5B, the Russian spacecraft is thought to weigh about 20 tonnes. But much of the mass of the new rocket is made up of propellant, which will burn up in the atmosphere, making any potential damage less likely.

China’s rocket eventually fell into the Indian Ocean, after a widely-tracked descent back down to Earth.

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