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The recent (April 2021) Chinese CZ-5B rocket launch gained widespread media attention because the large launcher was designed to de-orbit in an uncontrolled fashion, and ultimately landed in the Indian Ocean. This is the second such launch: in 2020, one crash-landed in West Africa. There has been some criticism of the apparent recklessness of this approach.

I asked a question on Law (https://law.stackexchange.com/q/64802/31473) regarding the legal consequences around (hypothetical) personal or property damage caused by re-entering debris from this launch. One aspect I drew attention to was the apparent reckless nature of it (which often has an impact on a legal claim) - this is not re-entering debris from the early days, or a result of a fault. The post initially received criticism (now deleted) for singling out the Chinese, where the US might be considered at least as much a target (and SpaceX was mentioned). After all, most space junk is of US or Russian origin. Skylab was edited into the question for balance.

Which leads to the question: has the CZ-5B launch been unfairly singled out for criticism, or is this approach to debris management indeed more widespread? And is it reasonable to consider rapidly re-entering launch debris as a distinct case from space junk generally?

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    $\begingroup$ It is not an isolated incident. Although space debris have been found from the space launches originating from many different countries, China does seem to have rather a lot. For example see the report below in which Chinese rockets feature heavily. The majority but far from all of US debris appear washed up on beaches. pauldmaley.com/sd1 news.finance.co.uk/… $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Commented May 9, 2021 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ nasa.gov/press-release/… $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Commented May 9, 2021 at 12:31
  • $\begingroup$ A rocket that gets into orbit on another stage will usually leave its stage in orbit with it. The stage would need to have an own engine and fuel to de-orbit controllably. The Space Shuttle did it differently: it went into a parking orbit with a perigee low enough for the External Tank to reenter the atmosphere, while the orbiter fired its own engines to go to a higher orbit. I dunno of any other spacecraft that did something like this, so I guess it is common that the upper stage remains in orbit. $\endgroup$
    – Giovanni
    Commented May 9, 2021 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ Accidentally I saw that particular piece flying over Sichuan China around 5:49 AM, 2020-05-09, Beijing Time when I was halfway summitting a mountain. After factoring out the possibility of a drone (too fast), an airplane (too quite), and a satellite (too bright and tumbling), I concluded it must be a rocket body and must be the Chinese CZ-5B. I (being Chinese) have to say China does have a bad reputation regarding spent rocket stages. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2021 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ Scott Manley has a video on this, posted 5/8. Other instances of space junk de-orbiting and hitting the ground, like Skylab and a Russian space station, were unintentional and not desired. Apparently, China just doesn't care. youtube.com/watch?v=afGFmAljL5E $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 18:21

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To summarize: While the US, much of Europe, and China have signed onto the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and 1972 Space Liability Convention if your property or person is damaged you would have to convince your politicians / embassies to invoke the provisions. Your country would have to be convinced to go to bat for you.

If you were hit by United States Government owned debris then you might be able to claim damages under the Federal Torts Claim Act.

There is an article written on this specific question:
https://www.planetary.org/articles/uncontrolled-reentry-rocket-damage-space-lawyers-explain

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  • $\begingroup$ This might be a useful answer to the original Law.SE question linked above, but this question isn't about the law, it's about practice: whether the apparently cavalier stance on debris management shown by these launches is typical or unusual compared to other agencies around the world. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 8:12

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