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It's common for SpaceX to de-orbit the second stage over the ocean (since they still have fuel for controlled re-entry,) but for the Long March core stage that is not the case.

Meteorites have hit the Earth's surface even though they have less mass than the core stage of the Long March core stage, though they do have the advantage of entering at a sharp angle.

Is it possible for the debris to hit the Earth's surface and possibly cause considerable damage to inhabited areas?

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  • $\begingroup$ "Though they do have the advantage of entering at a sharp angle" I would not consider this an advantage. If the meteorite is sharp, then it would take longer for it to slow down. Having a wider area would slow down the debris quicker, while having a thinner sharper area would have less air resistance and enter the atmosphere faster. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ I am always confused when people ask whether something that just actually happened, could theoretically happen. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that a (almost) hollow tube can be compared to a meteorite. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Aug 3 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ @TheRocketfan: I think "sharp angle" is talking about the trajectory, i.e. can be near vertical for a meteorite, giving it a lower "depth" of atmosphere to get through before hitting the ground. (And a steeper gradient of air density increase) $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterCordes that would make more sense $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 20:36

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is it possible for the debris [of the Long March core stage] to hit earth's surface and possibly cause considerable damage to inhabited areas?

Yes. Not only is it possible, but it has actually happened just two days ago.

More precisely, it depends on exactly which Long March variant you are talking about. There are 10 different series of the Long March family with a total of 22 different variants. Only one of these 22 variants routinely enters uncontrolled: the Long March 5B, which is a variant specifically designed for the sole purpose of launching modules to the Chinese Space Station that has no second stage and instead mounts the station modules directly onto the first stage. This first stage is massive and has no facilities for a controlled de-orbit burn.

On July, 24th 2022, China launched a Long March 5B with the third major module of the Chinese Space Station. The first stage reentered on July, 31st 2022, with debris landing on the island of Borneo.

A similar thing happened with the launch of the first module, where debris crashed in Cote d'Ivoir on May, 12th 2020.

In both cases, the debris missed houses or villages by only a couple 100m.

It's common for Spacex to de-orbit the second stage over the ocean (since they still have fuel for controlled re-entry).

That doesn't always work, however. A COPV from a second stage that failed its de-orbit burn crashed into a farm in Washington in March 2021. The major difference between this and the Long March 5B is of course that this was an unplanned failure whereas with the Long March 5B it is the normal plan.

However, just last month, pieces of the Crew Dragon trunk section from the Crew-1 launch crashed on a farm in Australia, and the Dragon trunk is indeed not planned to be de-orbited safely but reenter uncontrolled.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer! I thought had read something about the newest one landing near the Phillipines, but I must have misread it. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, I just saw a tweet with a photo of a Filipino fisher pulling some wreckage out of the water. That wasn't on land, of course, but it's not like barely missing a boat is much better than barely missing a house. $\endgroup$ Aug 3 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ SpaceX also can have this problem with Dragon's trunk, but it's a lot smaller than a full rocket body arstechnica.com/science/2022/08/… $\endgroup$ Aug 4 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ Appears that the Phillipine debris was the fairing. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 0:43

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