Chinese rocket gets parachute system to help guide boosters back to Earth

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China has equipped its Long March 3B rocket with a new parachute system aimed at giving more control over where boosters land.

The new system was used on a rocket carrying a meteorological satellite into orbit on Friday, the state-run China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology said in a statement on WeChat on Monday.

It is designed to bring down boosters in more targeted locations after they have separated from the rocket, said the academy, which developed the system with the China Academy of Space Technology.

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Once a rocket booster is at a certain height, the system – comprising two parachutes and a 300 sq metre parafoil – opens in a sequence to control its altitude and direction.

The academy said that the system should reduce the size of the estimated landing area by 70 per cent, making it more targeted, and that it also meant the space debris could be more easily located.

Hu Wei, deputy chief engineer of the Long March 3B, said a smaller debris zone would mean less uncertainty and potential disruption to populated areas on land.

“This was the first time such heavy rocket boosters have been guided back on their return to Earth,” Hu said in the statement after the launch. “All of the data we collected will help us to improve the parachute system and it will be an important reference for analysing rocket debris safety.”

The parachute system is seen on a Long March 3B rocket booster. Photo: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology
The parachute system is seen on a Long March 3B rocket booster. Photo: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology

China has an ambitious space programme and plans to conduct more than 40 rocket launches this year, but there are concerns about the threat posed by the increasing amount of space junk returning to Earth.

The latest parachute test comes after debris from China’s biggest rocket, the Long March 5B, crashed into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives last month – most of it burned up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere – after days of speculation and anxiety over where it would land. There were no reports of damage or casualties, but China was criticised for a lack of transparency over the space junk.

Last year, the remnants of a similar Long March 5B mission fell on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings, though no one was hurt. It was the largest spacecraft to fall to Earth since parts of the Nasa space station Skylab crashed into Western Australia in 1979.

And in November 2019, debris from a Long March 3B launch destroyed a home in southern China.

The new parachute-assisted landing system had been undergoing testing on rocket boosters for a couple of years. In March 2020, it was used on a Long March 3B rocket carrying a satellite into orbit for the BeiDou navigation system, according to Xinhua. The report said the system had helped personnel locate debris from the rocket within 25 minutes, a task it said usually took hours or weeks.

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