According to the US Defense Department, a big, probably uncontrollable portion of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket is falling back to Earth and is expected to reach sometime on Saturday. Experts caution that it might hit a populated area, but debris is more likely to fall harmlessly into the ocean.
The Pentagon said in a statement earlier this week that the exact location it will strike “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry.”
Officials in the United States are keeping an eye on the rocket’s trajectory. According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is “aware and he knows the space command is tracking, literally tracking this rocket debris.”
China’s government has said it expects most of the rocket to burn up during reentry.
What you should know:
Why did China launch the rocket?
On April 29, 2021, the Long March 5B rocket carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province, southern China. The space station, dubbed Heavenly Harmony, will be China’s first to house astronauts on a long-term basis.
China intends to launch ten more rockets to deliver additional space station components into orbit.
Is the Chinese rocket falling to Earth?
Yes, and “it’s potentially not good” astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of Harvard University’s Astrophysics Center told the Guardian earlier this week.
Normally, discarded core rockets, also known as first-stage rockets, crash into the sea shortly after launch and do not reach orbit, as this one did.
What is China saying about the rocket?
China’s government told the world on Friday that the rocket that is falling to Earth will largely burn up on reentry, posing little danger to people and property on the planet.
According to Reuters, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the rocket’s reentry into the atmosphere was being closely monitored.
“The probability of this process causing harm on the ground is extremely low,” he said.
China’s space agency has yet to say whether the main stage of the massive Long March 5B rocket is under control or would crash into the ground.
Where will the Chinese rocket land?
No one can be certain. Because of the rocket’s speed, pinpointing where debris might end up is nearly impossible, according to McDowell. Even minor changes in circumstances can dramatically alter the trajectory.
According to Space News, the debris will be drawn closer to Earth as collisions with molecules in the atmosphere increase.
However, one organisation has made a prediction: the debris would reach the Pacific Ocean near the equator after flying over eastern U.S. cities about 8 hours before or after 12:19 a.m. Sunday Eastern time.
The debris’ orbit stretches from New Zealand to Newfoundland, covering a large swath of the earth.
How big is the Chinese rocket that’s falling to Earth?
It’s about 100 feet tall, making it one of the largest pieces of space debris ever to fall to Earth.
“It’s almost the body of the rocket, as I understand it, almost intact, coming down,” Kirby said this week.
Has a rocket fallen to Earth before?
Yes, indeed. According to CNN, a fragment of a Chinese rocket flew directly over Los Angeles and Central Park in New York City before crashing in the Atlantic Ocean last year, making it one of the largest pieces of unregulated space debris ever.
Last May, an 18-ton rocket became the heaviest piece of unregulated debris to fall since the Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.
After Beijing announced it had lost ground, China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016. The space agency successfully decommissioned Tiangong-2, its second station, in the atmosphere in 2019.