Why did a piece of a rocket explode in a residential area in China?

Screengrabs from videos posted on Twitter (Mashable FR)
Screengrabs from videos posted on Twitter (Mashable FR)


A piece of a rocket booster used to launch the Chinese rocket Long March 3B fell on a residential neighbourhood in Guangxi province on Friday. Though the authorities knew this might occur, they did not take the safety of local residents into account. Since then, images of the fallen rocket booster have been making the rounds on Chinese social media.

On January 12, residents of Baise, which is in Guangxi province (southeastern China), saw something strange fall from the sky. When it hit the ground, it exploded. But it wasn’t a UFO.

It was actually a piece of one of the four rocket boosters used to launch the Long March 3B rocket, which had taken off a few minutes earlier from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, which is located roughly 700 kilometres from Baise. The rocket was carrying two BeiDou-3 navigation satellites bound for orbit around Earth (the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System is the Chinese equivalent of GPS.)

However, a piece of the booster ended up breaking away and exploding on contact. Luckily, no one was injured. Rockets boosters are actually supposed to fall back down to Earth after they finish providing extra lift to the rocket and run out of fuel. Even so, some of Baise’s 4 million residents must have been terrified (though in the video posted on social media, people can be heard saying “ooooh” and “ahhh” as if they were watching fireworks.)

This surreal scene occurred because China doesn’t have any rocket launch facilities near the coasts or in the desert, explained the French daily Le Figaro. That means that the boosters of Chinese rockets fall on land. It’s impossible to know exactly where they’ll fall.

This is dangerous because the booster engine still contains fuel and, thus, hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide, which are both toxic substances that were released when the booster exploded. Worryingly, curious people got quite close to the explosion to take pictures and videos, without any kind of protection.

This isn’t the first time that this type of situation has occured in China, reports French radio RFI. In 2009, a documentary made by a Chinese journalist recounted how people in Suining, located in the center of the country, have had bits of rockets falling on them for the past 20 years.

"We learn in it that soldiers bought the silence of residents when these falling rocket pieces caused extensive damage", RFI reported.

Article originally published on Mashable avec France24.