Following a launch on Friday local time, a Chinese rocket booster fell near a small town in southwest China, where it exploded and caught fire, GBTimes reports. It was one of four strap-on boosters used on China’s Long March 3B rocket, which had lofted two satellites into orbit before the crash. People living in the town Xiangdu, located in China’s Guangxi region, caught video of the booster as it fell perilously close to buildings and then erupted in flames.
The Long March 3B takes off from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in the country’s Sichuan province. Unlike most major launchpads in the US, the center is located many hundreds of miles from China’s coastline, so rockets launched from the site have to fly over land to get to orbit. That means when the rocket sheds parts during a flight, such as the strap-on boosters that give the vehicle extra thrust, these parts will fall in a designated drop zone over land. And many towns might be located in that zone.
“There are notices released for the drop zones, depending on what kind of launch and where it’s going,” Andrew Jones, a freelance journalist covering China’s spaceflight program, tells The Verge. “For some places, they’ll evacuate a town or an area, and they try to calculate these drop zones quite carefully to avoid as many inhabited areas as possible.”
After the crash, locals trekked up to the fallen booster to capture more video of the burning wreckage. The booster appears not have to damaged anyone or any buildings. However, the Long March 3B does use toxic propellants, such as hydrazine, which can be dangerous if it gets on someone’s skin or it’s inhaled, according to Jones. Fortunately, most of the booster’s propellant should be exhausted by the time it falls off the rocket. Still, what’s left in the rocket could pose a health risk to onlookers.
Up close to the booster from the Long March 3B that landed near buildings in Guangxi province shortly after launch pic.twitter.com/I8QoTovy1I— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) January 12, 2018
Many of China’s launch sites were built inland during the Cold War in order to keep them safe, since some of these facilities were also related to the country’s nuclear weapons programs. “Back in the Cold War, they had very high tensions with the Soviet Union and also the United States was considering a preemptive strike against China’s nascent nuclear weapons capabilities,” says Jones. “It was really to keep them away from the coast to keep them from being targeted.”
This decision has led to some fatal rocket accidents in the past. In 1996, a Long March 3B took off from the same Xichang Satellite Launch Center and accidentally strayed off course, landing in a nearby town. The crash destroyed dozens of homes, killed six people, and injured 57 others.
China is moving toward safer rocket launches, though. The country has been working on a new class of rockets, the Long March, 5, 6, and 7, which use less toxic propellants. And two of these vehicles, the 5 and 7, take off from China’s new Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. That launchpad is located just off the coast, allowing rockets to launch over water instead of land.
However, these rockets are still fairly new vehicles, and the Long March 5 suffered a major failure last year. So China will likely continue to rely on its over-land rockets, which the country has been using for decades. “I think it’s going to be going on for a few years,” says Jones.