A 22.5-metric-ton piece of space debris belonging to a Chinese Long March-5B rocket is about to make an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, with little information about when or where it will land. Here is what we know so far:
WHAT IS IT?
The debris itself is the core stage of the Long March-5B rocket, which is surrounded by four side boosters it uses to place its payload directly into low orbit. The Long March 5B launched the core module of China’s work-in-progress space station into orbit on April 28, and since then, space debris monitoring groups have kept a close eye on the rocket’s core stage falling back to the planet at an uncontrolled pace.
It was speculated that the dislodged core would perform an active maneuver to de-orbit itself, though a Thursday press conference with Wang Jue, commander in chief of Long March 5B launch vehicle, failed to mention the maneuver, according to a translation from Space News.
The debris got into Earth’s orbit after sending parts used to construct China’s space station scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022. China is expecting 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station, according to the Guardian.
WHEN AND WHERE COULD IT LAND?
On Tuesday, the Space Command began providing updates on the status of the loose Chinese rocket, saying that reentry for the debris is “expected around May 8.”
Leftover debris from the fiery space junk could hit the ground surface wherever it lands, the Scientific Americanreported.
Possible landing locations for the debris include New York, Madrid, and Beijing in the Northern Hemisphere and southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, in the Southern Hemisphere, according to Space News.
Still, it is impossible to know exactly where it will land, as the debris is orbiting earth roughly every 90 minutes.
Concerns about potential damage from the debris’ reentry stem from a previous Long March-5B rocket launch in which several reports indicated that fiery debris fell on at least two villages in the Ivory Coast, located on the southern side of West Africa, in May 2020.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Space News that large pieces will likely be destroyed by the intense heat during the reentry to Earth, but smaller pieces may make it to the ground.
“I think by current standards it’s unacceptable to let it reenter uncontrolled,” McDowell said. “Since 1990, nothing over 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to reenter uncontrolled.”
McDowell added that the Long March 5B rocket is “seven times more massive” than the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which stirred media attention after its reentry dumped a couple of pressure tanks on Washington state on April 2.
WHAT IS NEXT?
On Wednesday, the Defense Department said it has no plans to shoot down and break up the 46,000-pound debris.
“There are too many factors to take into account this early, such as the atmospheric conditions and the exact angle of the object as it enters the atmosphere,” a Space Command spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the White House has opted to avoid discussions about the apparent space debris hurtling toward Earth, and press secretary Jen Psaki declined to commit to the United States seeking compensation from China if the debris makes contact with inhabited land.
“We’d, of course, refer to the advice and guidance from the U.S. Space Command and Department of Defense and others,” Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. “We are certainly tracking its location through U.S. Space Command, and hopefully, that’s not the outcome that we are working through.”
While fragments of the rocket will likely land in an ocean or burn up when reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, there is a chance it could also hit a population center.
Psaki added that the U.S. will work with international partners to promote “responsible space behaviors.”