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The Pentagon says it’s tracking the orbit of a 21-ton Chinese rocket stage that will tumble into Earth’s atmosphere sometime on Saturday—and could possibly burst into a hail of space junk over a major metropolitan area.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said Wednesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is being briefed regularly on the trajectory of the craft, the core stage of a Long March 5B rocket, which carried the main module of China’s third space station, called Tiangong, into orbit on April 29.
The rocket stage is huge—about 100 feet long and 16 feet wide—and racing around the planet every 90 minutes. The Pentagon says it is almost impossible to predict where the stage will drop.
Experts have estimated the range of the Long March’s descent as extending as far north as New York, Madrid and Beijing, and as far south as Chile and Wellington, New Zealand. Since most of the planet is ocean, that’s almost certainly where any debris would fall. The vessel could burn up entirely as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.
So we’ll all be fine. Probably.
Still, editors at the New York Post feared the worst: “Giant Chinese rocket’s debris could crash down on New York” blared a March 3 headline.
China’s state-owned Global Times decried reports that the rocket stage is “out of control” as “Western hype.” The newspaper, per Reuters, quoted Wang Yanan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, as saying: “Most of the debris will burn up during reentry…leaving only a very small portion that may fall to the ground, which will potentially land on areas away from human activities or in the ocean.”
Global coverage of the rocket’s reentry has highlighted concern about the escalating hazards posed by space junk as more and more countries and companies deploy miniature and low-Earth satellites. It also underscored China’s determination to join the global space race.
As Bloomberg points out here, the norm for first-stage launch vehicles is to send their payloads into orbit then “immediately fall back in a pre-planned area.” Instead China sent the Long March 5 rocket into orbit along with its cargo, making reentry unpredictable.
SpaceNews, citing Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, reports that the Long March 5B is “the most massive uncontrolled reentry in decades and the fourth-biggest ever.”
In May 2020, the core stage of another Long March 5B, weighing in at 18 tons, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern coast of Africa, raining debris over two villages in Côte d’Ivoire. Earlier incarnations of Long March rockets have showered fragments on Chinese villages.
The only larger incidents of uncontrolled space junk crashing back to Earth are the 1979 reentry of NASA’s wounded 77-ton Skylab space station, which scattered chunks into the Indian Ocean and over parts of western Australia; the 1975 reentry of Skylab’s rocket stage; and the 1991 reentry of the Soviet Union’s abandoned 43-ton Salyut 7 space station.
The Biden administration refrained from criticizing China directly for this week’s uncontrolled reentry. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “the United States is committed to addressing the risks of growing congestion due to space debris and growing activity in space and we want to work with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors.”
McDowell was less diplomatic, telling SpaceNews that, by current standards, “it’s unacceptable to let [the Long March core stage] reenter uncontrolled.”
Acceptable or not, the Long March 5B rocket will eventually fall to Earth. Keep an eye out on Saturday.
More Eastworld news below.
This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Grady McGregor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pesky press
In recent years, multinational corporations operating in Hong Kong have been caught in a bind amid rising U.S.-China tensions, Hong Kong 2019 protest movement, and Beijing’s increasing stranglehold over city affairs. Now, Hong Kong-based international business executives believe that western reporters may be their greatest threat to doing business in the financial hub. They say that reporting from western media outlets about the erosion of democratic freedoms in the city has prompted head offices in their home markets to divest from Hong Kong offices. Financial Times
Following Tesla’s lead, companies in Asia are starting to bet big on crypto. This week, South Korean gaming giant Nexon announced that it is investing $100 million into Bitcoin, saying that the cryptocurrency offers long-term stability and will help protect shareholder value. But Nexon is not alone, as in April, Meitu, developer of a beauty-enhancement photo app, said it would invest the same amount of its cash holdings into Bitcoin and Ethereum. Nikkei Asian Review
The European Union released draft rules on Wednesday to crack down on state-funded foreign companies in Europe, a measure that may leave China’s state-subsidized firms open to attacks from EU regulators. The legislation, which has not yet been passed by the EU, is seen as directly targeting Chinese firms, and is indicative of rapidly dimming EU attitudes towards the nation. Wall Street Journal
The quiet game
Sponsors of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic do not want to talk about the Olympics. The Financial Times did not receive comment from 11 sponsors including American firms Coca-Cola, Visa, and Airbnb, China’s Alibaba and Japan’s Toyota when the companies were asked if their plans had changed regarding their sponsorship of the games amid boycott calls over alleged human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang province. The two firms that did respond, the German insurer Allianz and Swiss watchmaker Omega, said they plan to follow through on their sponsorship commitments. Financial Times
Share prices for Chinese vaccine makers Cansino Biologics, Fosun Pharma, and Walvax technology dropped 14%, 9%, and 10% in trading in China on Thursday after U.S. President Joe Biden's administration declared its support for patent waivers for COVID-19 vaccines. The drops mirror similar hits that U.S. vaccine makers Moderna, BioNTech, and Novavax suffered on U.S. exchanges following the White House's announcement, as investors fear the financial repercussions of sharing the valuable patent rights. Financial Times
Coronavirus by country
Wealthy Thai citizens are growing increasing frustrated at Thailand’s slow vaccine rollout, and Thai travel agencies are taking notice. Several agencies are now offering vaccine tours to the U.S. and elsewhere so that Thai citizens can get jabbed. The agencies say that customers want the two-shot Pfizer vaccine instead of the one-shot J&J one, even though the Pfizer vaccine will require people to take a 23-day trip to the U.S. to get both doses. As of Thursday, only 0.6% of Thai citizens are fully vaccinated as the government has been slow to roll out vaccines from Chinese maker Sinovac and a locally-manufactured version of AstraZeneca’s jab. Thailand is also currently battling a month-long surge in COVID-19 infections, recording nearly 2,000 new cases per day, after the country spent much of last year and this spring largely free of COVID-19. Reuters
Markets and movers
Tencent – The Chinese social media giant is in talks with the U.S. government to keep its ownership stakes in major American game developers Riot Games and Epic Games. The U.S. has been investigating Tencent’s stakes in the gaming companies to see if Tencent’s handling of American user data constitute a national security risk due to Tencent’s potential ties to China’s government. Reuters
Singapore Press Holdings – The parent company of the Singapore newspaper the Straits Times, one of the region’s largest news outlets, is restructuring from a media business into a non-profit company. The move comes as the Straits Times has struggled in its transition from and advertising- and print-driven revenue model to an online, subscription-based platform. Straits Times
Crown Resorts – The U.S. private equity group Blackstone, American rival Oaktree capital, and other suitors are in a bidding war to purchase Australian casino operator Crown Resorts. Crown, valued at a $8.19 billion, reported a net loss of $92 million in the last six months of last year amid the pandemic. Nikkei Asian Review
India 5G – India’s government excluded Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE from a list of potential 5G network infrastructure suppliers on Tuesday. Foreign 5G equipment like Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung will now plan to compete alongside Indian carriers like Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel in a six-month trial starting this week for India’s valuable 5G network contract. Nikkei Asian Review
TSMC – U.S. commerce secretary Gina Raimondo is pressuring TSMC and other Taiwanese chipmakers to prioritize supplying chips to U.S. carmakers amid a global chip shortage. TSMC also revealed plans this week to build several new chipmaking plants in the U.S. Caixing Global
Tesla – The U.S. electric vehicle maker announced Thursday that is developing a separate data platform for car owners in China and aims to launch the platform later this year. The new platform is a bid to quell Beijing’s concerns that Tesla’s data is not accessible outside the U.S. and cannot be shared with American authorities. Reuters
Goldman Sach’s chief Asia economist Andrew Tilton cut his growth forecast for India from 10.9% to 10.5% in 2021 amid India’s surge in COVID-19 infections. The move mirrors economists' subdued attitude about the ability of countries across Asia to recover from the pandemic amid surging case numbers and slow vaccine roll outs in places like Japan and Thailand. The apprehension in Asia stands in stark contrast to places like the U.S. and western Europe, where swift vaccine rollouts and stimulus packages are expected to help fuel speedy recoveries. South China Morning Post
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