Debris from a Chinese rocket is set to fall to Earth sometime this weekend, at an unknown location.
The massive Chinese rocket booster travels at 17,000 miles per hour and weighs around 25 tons.
Experts expect between 5 and 9 tons — or up to 18,000 pounds — of material to fall from the sky.
At this moment, a massive Chinese rocket is about to crash towards Earth. Experts say the mass of rocket junk, dubbed Long March 5B, is likely to hit Earth this weekend.
China’s rocket was launched on July 24 to deliver a laboratory module to China’s Tiangong space station, which is under construction. Scientists at the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies, or CORDS, said the rocket debris was descending and would begin an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere sometime on Saturday or Sunday.
There is “a non-zero probability that the surviving debris will land in a populated area,” CORDS researchers wrote on the center’s website.
Using tracking data, the researchers created a map that projects a potential field of locations for the space junk’s reentry, but the actual reentry point remains uncertain. The blue and yellow lines indicate all the places where the rocket booster can fall.
The yellow satellite icon shows where the booster will be right in the middle of the 36-hour time window when it could possibly drop. (The icon is not a prediction of where the booster will land.)
This is the third time China has launched a Long March 5B and allowed its body to fall uncontrollably to Earth. China is preparing to launch the rocket again in October, Spaceflight Now said.
At this time, it is impossible to estimate exactly where the rocket stage will fall.
“The catch is that the density of the upper atmosphere varies with time. It’s actually weather up there. That makes it impossible to predict exactly at what point the satellite will have plowed through enough atmosphere to melt and break up and eventually re-enter, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said at a Thursday briefing.
How fast the debris slides through space can lead to large deviations in predictions, McDowell added. If you’re an hour off, “because it’s going 17,000 miles an hour, you’re 17,000 miles away from where it’s going to come down, and that’s the big challenge with all of this,” he said.
Experts at The Aerospace Corporation say that the general rule of thumb is that up to 40% of the mass of a large object will reach the ground. In this case, they expect between 5 and 9 tons of material to fall — up to 18,000 pounds.
Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas, such as the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry”. It is not clear why China has not designed or programmed the Long March 5B to do so.
“On the surface, it looks irresponsible. And it’s conceivable that they have enough technical data to know that it will come down into the South Pacific, even without being pressured to do so. That’s one possibility. But, you know, to have this big thing fall out of the sky would be disgusting,” said John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of NASA’s advisory council.
If rocket parts land on people or their property, China could be on the hook for the damage. According to the 1972 Convention on Nuclear Weapons Treaty, the launching nation is responsible for its missiles and any damage they cause.
Robin Dickey, a space policy analyst at The Aerospace Corporation, said current debris mitigation and long-term sustainability guidelines from the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space include recommendations to minimize risks to people and property on Earth from uncontrolled reentries, both of which have been supported by China. “The problem is that they are not very technical or specific, and they are also non-binding. There are no legal consequences for not taking the steps that are considered possible to reduce risk,” Dickey said at Thursday’s briefing.
“One thing I’m going to be watching closely in response to things like this re-entry is who are the actors – the countries, individuals and companies – who are publicly responding to this behavior and saying it’s irresponsible, because that will indicate whether we” I want to be able to develop stronger or clearer norms of where the threshold between OK and not OK is,” Dickey said.
In May 2021, parts of another of China’s Long March missiles landed in the Indian Ocean. And in May 2020, another Chinese rocket broke down, falling debris and causing property damage in Africa.
“They have participated in the UN discussions on rules of good conduct. And so they are certainly aware of the need for norms of conduct. Whether they willfully ignore it in this case – it’s hard to think that they would be that irresponsible,” Logsdon said .
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