A 22-ton Chinese rocket core falling back to Earth on an uncontrolled path could potentially cause debris to crash in the United States and other parts of the world during the next several days, according to multiple outlets.
China launched a Long March 5B rocket April 29 from a launch site in Hainan province to deliver its unmanned Tianhe space module to the country’s space station, SpaceNews first reported. The module separated from the launcher and entered its planned low earth orbit, but the rocket core and side boosters will likely make an uncontrolled landing on Earth’s surface.
Ground-based radars used by the U.S. military have since detected and cataloged the nearly 100-foot tall rocket core, according to SpaceNews. The military codenamed the object 2021-035B and a live-tracker shows it is currently orbiting Earth at nearly 17,401 mph.
This morning’s data on the altitude-versus-time of the Tianhe / CZ-5B objects. The core stage orbit continues to slowly decay as expected. pic.twitter.com/E8EPJ9yzRu
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 4, 2021
The rocket core’s orbital incline of 41.5 degrees means debris could land as far north as New York and Beijing or as far south as Southern Chile and New Zealand.
Experts said any debris that makes it past the intense heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere would likely fall into the ocean or an uninhabited area, but added there was still a risk of damage to people or property, SpaceNews reported.
“It’s potentially not good,” Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the Guardian. “Last time they launched a Long March 5B rocket they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast. We are very lucky no one was hurt.”
McDowell said the re-entry would be the “equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles.” He also blamed China for not stopping the uncontrolled landing, noting that no uncontrolled object more than 10 tons re-entered the Earth since 1990. (RELATED: Watch SpaceX’s Starship Rocket Explode Minutes After Successfully Landing)
“What’s bad is that it’s really negligent on China’s part. Things more than ten tons, we don’t let them fall out of the sky uncontrolled deliberately,” he said.
Some had speculated the Long March 5B core would be upgraded with a de-orbit program, SpaceNews reported. But Wang Jue, commander of the rocket program, made no mention of a possible de-orbit maneuver at a press conference ahead of last week’s launch.