The fiery wreckage of a Long March 5B lit up skies over the Philippines over the weekend as the spent rocket reentered the atmosphere. It won’t be the last mission for the controversial rocket, however.
The Long March 5B (Y3) rocket successfully launched a new module for China’s Tiangong space station on July 24, but the huge first stage of the rocket made a high-profile, uncontrolled reentry six days later.
Most of the spent rocket stage burned up on reentry and most of what survived ended up in the seas, but some debris hit land in Indonesia and Malaysia. But how many more launches of the rocket — and subsequent uncontrolled reentries — can we expect?
China is already preparing to launch its third and final piece of Tiangong, following launches of Tianhe last year and Wentian in late July. Mengtian, which translates to “dreaming of the heavens,” is expected to launch from Wenchang on the coast of Hainan island in October.
Following this, China aims to launch a Hubble-class space telescope, named Xuntian, which will share its orbit with Tiangong in order to be able to dock with the orbital outpost for maintenance, repairs, refueling and even upgrades. That mission is expected to fly on a Long March 5B in late 2023 or 2024.
While these two missions are the only confirmed future Long March 5B launches in the works, there could be others in the future.
Officials with the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) stated previously that the country is considering launching new versions of Tianhe and the Wentian and Mengtian experiment modules, taking the number of Tiangong modules to six, and requiring three further Long March 5B launches.
The first launch of the Long March 5B sent a prototype new generation crew spacecraft into orbit back in 2020. But China is building a new, reusable launch vehicle to launch this successor to the Shenzhou spacecraft, rather than relying on the 5B.
The Long March 5B is China’s most powerful for lifting heavy payloads into low Earth orbit. This means the rocket could also be used for future large payloads designed to orbit a few hundred miles up, but China so far has not announced any such plans.