Space Debris Disrupts Shanghai Air Traffic

Shanghai Daily (via Adam Minter) reports that fears of incoming debris from a Russian space probe convinced air traffic controllers to suspend landings at the city’s airports last month:

The regulators asked the planes to circle around Pudong and Hongqiao international airports about 1am on January 16 after being informed that some pieces of the probe might be dropping to the city, said the East China Regional Administration under Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Two of the 17 planes warned that their fuel was low and were allowed to land ahead of other planes after the alert was lifted, the administration said.

The probe was launched from Kazakhstan in November, and was supposed to collect mineral samples from Phobos, one of the two Martian moons. It broke down before leaving Earth orbit, however, and fell into the Pacific on January 16th.

Shanghai Daily does not mention that Phobos-Grunt had a hitchhiker aboard: China’s own Yinghuo-1 (“Firefly”), the country’s first interplanetary mission. The two were scheduled to separate after an eleven-month voyage to Martian orbit, with the Russian probe then proceeding to Phobos.

Der Spiegel recently revealed that a German satellite “just barely” missed Beijing last October, falling instead into the Bay of Bengal.

The consequences could have been grave. Rosat weighed 2.5 tons. Normally, some 20 to 40 percent of a satellite reaches the Earth’s surface when it falls out of orbit. “But with Rosat, we knew it would be around 60 percent because it was made out of particularly heavy and durable parts,” said Klinkrad.

Parts of the satellite would likely have torn deep craters into the city, may have destroyed buildings and almost certainly would have resulted in human casualties. German-Chinese relations would likely have suffered as well.

February 7, 2012 12:31 AM
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