Hundreds of European flights delayed due to out-of-control rocket


EasyJet flight U27342, 10 a.m., Friday November 4. A few minutes from taking off, the Airbus A321 of the British low-cost airline must resign. At the Saint Exupéry airport control tower in Lyon, the controllers indicate that the slot to land in Lisbon is no longer available. The pilots, in the cockpit, relay the message to the cabin, but add no details. It will be necessary to wait almost two hours before tearing itself off the ground.

The reason, we discovered it on landing. On Twitter, for the air enthusiasts, all the sky monitoring accounts indicated it. A Chinese rocket, launched 4 days earlier, began to disintegrate in the sky. The debris, most of which should crumble to dust before it hits the ground, traced several directional lines, one of which passed over Spain. No unnecessary risk, several airports have decided to close and part of the air routes passing over the country have been closed.

300 flights delayed due to rocket

The measures were put in place on Friday morning between 8:38 a.m. and 9:18 a.m. GMT. A sufficient period of time to create delays in the Iberian Peninsula, but also for international flights, passing over the country. By a snowball effect, our Lyon-Lisbon flight itself suffered the consequences of this discord. According to Spanish airport operator Aena, 300 of the 5,484 flights scheduled for Friday experienced delays. 46 airports were concerned.

To close its airspace, Spain followed the recommendations of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the Interministerial Council. In the end, a radius of 100 kilometers around the two trajectories of debris from the Chinese rocket was drawn up. After the episode, it turned out that no pieces disintegrated over the country – most having disintegrated at the level of the Indian Ocean and in the Sulu Sea in the Philippines.

Two different discourses on space debris

A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs nevertheless wanted to reassure everyone by indicating that the air corridors would not be in any danger.

“It is understood that [ce] type of rocket uses special technology designed so that the vast majority of components are destroyed by ablation upon re-entry, and the likelihood of harm to air and ground activities is extremely low”, said the spokesperson. He added that the re-entry of a rocket into the atmosphere was “common international practice”.

The terms used are not the same on the side of the European space surveillance and monitoring operation centres. For them, it was rather than an “uncontrolled entry of remnants of the Chinese space object CZ-5B into a descending orbit crossing the national territory”. In question, a huge piece of the rocket, which left in early November to bring new equipment to the new Chinese space station called Tiangong.

The risks increase

May 2021 seems a long way off. But it marked the advent of a new and growing problem with space: space debris. More than a year ago, it was the articulated arm of the International Space Station (ISS) which was hit by space debris, without causing too much damage fortunately. Since then, dodging maneuvers have never stopped for the largest artificial satellite in orbit, where there are currently 7 astronauts. Dubbed a “space scavenger” by Paris, Russia also pulverized one of its satellites last year, producing a new cloud of debris that now threatens the stability of low orbit.

In Australia, in July 2022, the debate on the danger of space debris for homes was reignited after a piece of a SpaceX rocket crashed in the middle of a field. And astrophysicists are not reassured. In view of the number of celestial objects in orbit around our planet, and faced with the risks of Kessler syndrome (reaction to the chain of collisions in low orbit), the threat is increasingly strong. The risks have especially increased since a significant event in 2007, when China exploded one of its satellites to test the effectiveness of one of its new missiles.

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