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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
    May 9 '21 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ nasa.gov/press-release/… $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    May 9 '21 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
    May 9 '21 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. $\endgroup$ May 10 '21 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
    May 10 '21 at 18:21

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