Spectacular recordings of falling rocket fragments regularly appear on the Chinese network and are picked up by foreign enthusiasts of the Chinese space program.
Children in the shadow of a toxic cloud
A very good video showing the fragment falling from the sky appeared in September after the launch of the Long March 4B rocket from the Taiyuan spaceport, located about 400 kilometers west of Beijing. At its peak, two observation satellites entered orbit, but its worn first step (28 meters high, 3.3 wide) fell near the village of Lilong, about 500 kilometers south of the launch site. The video clearly shows a large element falling over the overgrown hills and then an orange cloud, clearly indicating that it is a highly toxic rocket fuel vapor.
In addition, it is clearly audible that at least one part of the edited video was recorded from the backyard of the school or kindergarten, because you can clearly hear the playing children. Despite the fact that there is a huge toxic cloud hovering maybe several kilometers away. Moreover, the next part of the video shows people, without any protective gear, hanging around at the site of the rocket’s crash.
Taken together, it illustrates the hard-to-grasp in the west of ignoring the risk of huge pieces of metal falling from the sky and spreading highly toxic chemicals around them.
Flights over the heads of citizens
There are more similar recordings. There are many opportunities to do them. For many years, China has had the most rocket launches per year. In 2019, it was 34, compared to 27 in the US and 25 in Russia. The Chinese have four spaceports, three of which are located inland. One, the Jiuquan spaceport, is located in the sparsely populated desert areas of Inner Mongolia, more than 1,000 kilometers west of Beijing. The rockets launched from there do not cause great problems, because their worn parts fall into the desert areas. This is the first of the Chinese spaceports that began to be built during the friendship with the USSR, primarily to test the first military ballistic missiles. Location near the border with a powerful neighbor was not a problem.
In the early 1960s, however, relations with the USSR collapsed. Another two spaceports were built further south, at a safe distance from the border. Additionally, they had to be far from the sea, where the Americans reigned supreme. As a result, two more spaceports, Taiyuan and Xichang, are located inland, on the edge of densely populated areas in China. The rockets fired from them must fly over numerous towns and villages. It is dictated by physics. Specifically, the fact that the Earth is turning eastwards.
The same rule applies to anyone who wants to deliver something into orbit. In order to stay there, you need to reach a certain speed relative to the center of the Earth, the so-called first cosmic speed, or about 28,000 kilometers per hour. By firing the rocket towards the east, it is easier to achieve because already at the time of launch it is moving relative to the center of the Earth at the speed that the planet is rotating at this point. At the equator, it is about 1.5 thousand km / h. A rocket taking off towards the east must therefore accelerate by up to 1,000 km / h less per hour, which means a significant saving on fuel, and therefore on weight. Contrary to appearances, this is a serious benefit. However, this means that rockets from Chinese spaceports must fly over the country’s most densely populated areas, and not over the sparsely populated west.
Americans and Europeans avoid this problem because their main spaceports are located on the shores of the Atlantic. When taking off to the east, the rockets rise above the water and drop their used parts into it. The main Russian spaceports to the east of each other have vast and almost deserted steppes of Kazakhstan, or the forests of the Siberian taiga. There are some exceptions to the general rule that the rockets take off towards the east, but that is a topic for a different text. In the context of Chinese recordings, this general principle is crucial.
After the end of the Cold War and the decline in the sense of threat from outside, the Chinese also built a spaceport on the shores of the ocean. Specifically in Wenchang on Hainan Island. It has an optimal position, but so far it is relatively rarely used. It is intended for the latest rockets that are just under development or are starting to fly for good.
The fate of the Chinese living under missile routes is exacerbated by the fact that those most used and launched from Taiyuan and Xichang are powered by hypergola fuels. That is, those that ignite rapidly when in contact with each other. Several different variants of the Long March 2, 3 and 4 rockets are powered by dinitrogen tetroxide and dimethylhydrazine. Behind these complex names are substances that are highly poisonous. Although they are very efficient as rocket fuel, they do not need ignition systems and are relatively cheap and easy to transport and store. Unfortunately, it is also dangerous for people, which requires great care when handling rockets. And it poses a risk in various accidents. I wrote about one last week.
They also inevitably pose an additional threat when the first stage, worn out and thrown away from the rocket, falls near a village. There is always “some” (it can mean even several tons) of unused fuel in the tanks. This means either an explosion when hitting the ground or the release of a significant amount of toxic fuel vapors. This is clearly indicated by the orange smoke visible in the recordings from China.
There is no official information that anyone has suffered from rockets falling from the sky in recent years. The area where this will occur is known to approximately tens of kilometers. Before each take-off, local people are to be warned. The authorities order the electricity in the house to be turned off at a certain moment and to hide. In addition, run away when you see a rocket fragment falling nearby, and under no circumstances get close to its remains.
However, the recordings show that people ignore these orders and approach the remains, touch them and kick them. After the voices of the children playing in the yard, despite the toxic cloud floating nearby, it can be concluded that the order to hide is also treated freely. On the other hand, there are probably no specialized and tight bunkers in the villages, but how else to hide from an object that can fall in a completely random place with great force and poison the surroundings with chemicals.
The lack of information about the victims or the injured does not necessarily mean that they are not there. Information from the Chinese province reaches the West to a limited extent. A good example of this is the 1996 Long March 3 rocket disaster. As part of a pioneering partnership with Western companies, it was to launch an American satellite. Unfortunately, shortly after taking off from the Xichang spaceport, it began to rapidly deviate from the course due to a failure of the control system. It fell on a village in a nearby valley, causing a massive explosion. Six people were officially killed and 157 injured. Foreign visitors who watched the take-off and were hastily transported from the spaceport through the devastated town the next day, however, claimed that the scale of the damage was enormous, and among the ruins were many ambulances and trucks loaded with what appeared to be a corpse. There are estimates of several hundred victims in Western literature. If this kind of catastrophe had happened again, we would have heard of it. However, about smaller cases?
The new Chinese Long March 5, 6 and 7 missiles are already powered by much safer and standard fuels in the West, i.e. kerosene and liquid oxygen. They can also be launched from the Wenchang spaceport. In the next decade, the number of recordings with deadly rocket parts falling from the sky will most likely decrease.
In addition, you can watch a Chinese documentary from 2009, including about life in the villages constantly bombarded with parts of rockets. It may not contain spectacular shots of big falling parts, but it tells a lot about life in the Chinese countryside.