China’s Long March Rocket is Falling Back to Earth Amid Uncertainty about Landing Location

Debris from a huge rocket that launched the core module of China’s first permanent space station into orbit last week is reportedly tumbling back to Earth and could make an uncontrolled re-entry through the atmosphere this weekend. The landing place is currently unknown.

The 30-meter-tall Long March 5B rocket is currently speeding around Earth, its path visible on multiple websites. At the time of writing, it is traveling at approximately 28,000 km/h at an altitude of more than 200 km. According to SpaceNews, amateur ground observations of the rocket core showing regular flashes suggest that it is tumbling and thus not under control.

The Guardian reported that based on its current orbit, the rocket is passing over Earth as far north as New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its re-entry at any point within this area. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, told the newspaper that the rocket is most likely to fall into the sea, as the ocean covers about 71% of the planet.

McDowell has predicted some pieces of the rocket will survive re-entry and that the impact would be the “equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles”. What typically survives, according to McDowell, are smaller components made of metals that are extraordinarily resistant to heat and larger ones that melt at lower temperatures, but may partly make it through due to their size.

The US Space Command said on Wednesday that it is tracking remnants from the rocket and expects it to fall to Earth on May 8 though the exact point where it will crash “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its re-entry”. A spokesperson for the Australian government told The Independent that it is keeping a close watch on the rocket and it does not foresee a high risk to populated areas in the country.

Chinese authorities have provided little information on whether the rocket is being controlled or will make an out-of-control descent. However, the Global Times, a tabloid published by the official People’s Daily, has claimed the rocket’s “thin-skinned” aluminum-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people. The newspaper also labeled reports that the rocket is out of control and could cause damage to the ground as “Western hype”.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Wednesday: “The United States is committed to addressing the risks of growing congestion due to space debris and growing activity in space and we want to work with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors.”

The Long March 5B rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan on April 29, carrying the Tianhe module which contains living quarters for three crew members. The launch was the first of 11 planned missions as part of the construction of China’s new space station, which is expected to be completed in late 2022.

SEE ALSO: China Launches the Core Module of Its First Permanent Space Station into Orbit

China has run into controversy over claims it has deliberately left aircraft in orbit, allowing them to re-enter the atmosphere uncontrolled in the past. According to McDowell, last May, another Long March 5B rocket fell into the atmosphere and landed near the west coast of Africa, damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast.