Russian rocket launch: why did out of control 20-ton spacecraft hurtle back to Earth - and where did it crash?

Launched in late December 2021, the huge Angara A5 rocket fell back to earth late on Wednesday (5 January)

When a massive asteroid narrowly missed the earth in December, it underlined the natural dangers posed by space.

Plans for how to deflect space rocks are still in their infancy, with US space agency Nasa having only recently launched humanity’s first attempt at knocking an asteroid off course.

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But while asteroids are an understandable space hazard, we don’t expect man-made objects to threaten life on earth.

And yet, that is what happened late on Wednesday (5 January), when an out of control Russian rocket plummeted back into the atmosphere.

So why did this spacecraft fall back to earth - and where did it crash?

Here’s what you need to know.

Russia’s Angara rocket made a successful launch in December 2021 but ran into problems once it reached space (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Why did the Russian rocket launch go wrong?

On 27 December 2021, Russia launched a rocket it is developing from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome around 800km north of the country’s capital, Moscow.

The heavy-lifting Angara launch vehicle has been in development since 1992 and has been designed to replace a number of Russia’s existing space rockets.

Its most recent launch was meant to be a third and final demonstration flight for its A5 variant, with the rocket carrying a 2,400kg fake satellite that was intended to be deployed at a high, stable orbit before being blasted out further into space.

Russia’s Angara rocket is designed to lift heavy payloads into space (image: AFP/Getty Images)

While the initial phases of the launch were successful, the rocket’s upper section - Persei - suffered an engine failure and the spacecraft was unable to go higher than a low-earth orbit.

It led to the mission being abandoned.

However, the 20-ton spacecraft soon began falling back to earth - although one Russian space expert wrote that the rocket was likely to weigh 3.5-tons by the time it re-entered the atmosphere as much of its fuel would have been drained.

Where did the rocket crash?

Experts struggled to predict when and where the rocket would crash land due to its uncontrolled descent.

Locations as diverse as the Indian Ocean, Southern Ocean, Pacific, Mexico and Texas were mooted by astronomer Jonathan McDowell from the US Centre for Astrophysics.

Russia has a long track record of successful space missions, including being the first country to get a human - Yuri Gagarin - into space (image: AFP/Getty Images)

While these latter two locations presented the possibility debris from the rocket could hit an urban area, Mr McDowell said on Twitter on Tuesday (4 January) that any falling pieces would only be likely to make a dent in someone’s roof rather than cause any major damage.

At around 9pm GMT on Wednesday (5 January), it was confirmed the rocket had crashed into an empty patch of the south of the Pacific ocean, well east of the island of French Polynesia.

Is this kind of crash common?

The world’s various space agencies tend to try to crash large old satellites and even former space stations from low-earth orbits into this part of the Pacific Ocean because of its distance from human civilisation.

However, they usually do so in a controlled manner by burning up these spacecrafts’ fuel reserves to slow their rate of descent.

Smaller craft tend to burn up in the atmosphere, while those spacecraft in higher orbits tend to be pushed out to what is called a ‘graveyard orbit’ some 200 miles above where the farthest human satellites operate.

Uncontrolled re-entries by spacecraft have happened in the past.

In May 2021, China sparked anger worldwide when an out of control 23-ton section of its Long March 5B rocket tumbled back to earth after having put a major part of the country’s first space station into orbit.

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