The Long March 5B rocket, which carried a Chinese space station module, has dropped into low Earth orbit and now risks crashing back down.
The rocket successfully launched the Tianhe module last week, which will become the living quarters of the future Chinese Space Station (CSS). Unfortunately, the 30-metre long rocket also reached orbit, and is now one of the largest ever launches to make an uncontrolled re-entry.
It is uncommon for rockets to reach the velocity necessary to reach orbit, but it is currently travelling around the world once every 90 minutes, or seven kilometres every second. It passes by just north of New York, Madrid, and Beijing, and as far south as Chile and New Zealand.
There are fears that the rocket could land on an inhabited area; the last time a Long March rocket was launched in May 2020, debris was reported falling on villages in the Ivory Coast. The speed of the rocket means scientists still do not yet know when it will fall, but it is likely to do so before 10 May 2021.
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Estimate of impact continues to narrow
The latest predictions are narrowed even more. The estimate for re-entry is now at 4.19am UTC on Sunday.
But there is still a big window; it could be eight hours before or after that.
(UTC is the same as GMT; add an hour for UK time, or remove four for EST, and so on.)
Where and when will the rocket hit? Possible impact time continues to narrow
As the re-entry approaches, the estimate of when exactly it might be narrows. The Aerospace Corporation has given its latest estimate, with a smaller window.
It says it should hit on Sunday morning UK time. But there’s still a big window either side: it could be as much as 11 hours before or after that.
Of course, that means that predicting where it might be is very difficult indeed, since it is moving so fast. But here’s the latest prediction that can at least give you some indication of what might be going on.
China says risk is ‘extremely low'
China’s foreign ministry has said that the risk of any harm is “extremely low”. Here’s a report from the Associated Press:
Most debris from a large Chinese rocket expected to plunge back through the atmosphere this weekend will be burned up on reentry and is highly unlikely to cause any harm, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Friday.
The U.S. military said on Wednesday what it called an uncontrolled re-entry was being tracked by U.S. Space Command. The Long March 5B rocketblasted off from China‘s Hainan island on April 29, carrying the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station.
The location of the rocket‘s descent into Earth’s atmosphere as it falls back from space “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry”, which is projected to occur around May 8, U.S. Space Command said.
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters this week there was a chance that pieces of the rocket could come down over land such as in May 2020, when pieces from another Chinese Long March 5B rocket rained down on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings.
He said potentially dangerous debris would likely escape incineration after streaking through the atmosphere at hypersonic speed but in all likelihood would fall into the sea, given that 70% of the world is covered by ocean.
Speaking in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was closely following the rocket‘s reentry into the atmosphere, and that most of its components would be burned up upon re-entry.
“The probability of this process causing harm on the ground is extremely low,” he said.
Chinese paper defends secrecy over rocket and attacks US for ‘point-scoring'
“There is no evidence Beijing is acting irresponsibly in space,” argues this editorial from the South China Morning Post, which attempts to take against the widely-held opinion that the rocket is especially dangerous.
It also argues that many space agencies, not only China’s are secretive about their missions. China has been criticised in recent days for not revealing much about either the flight or the rocket, meaning it is difficult to know how it will fall and what will happen to it when it does.
And it says – as many others are – that the rocket will almost certainly be entirely safe and will probably land in the sea. But it also does accept that a similar rocket, last year, landed on houses in the Ivory Coast.
Watch our Q&A about the falling rocket
Jonathan McDowell is perhaps the world’s leading expert on this now-famous piece of space junk. We asked him everything you might want to know.
Russia says it is monitoring the rocket – but not to worry
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, says it is tracking the rocket. But it should not cause damage – at least to Russia itself...
“Some of the rocket stage structures will cease to exist in dense layers of the atmosphere, but some incombustible structural elements may reach the earth’s surface,” an update on its site reads. “On May 7-8, there will be real probability of the point of impact. This situation will not hurt the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Map shows possible re-entry path
Latest predictions from The Aerospace Corporation are largely similar to what we’ve come to expect: early Sunday morning UK time, but with a window of about 11 hours either side.
Re-entry is still even harder to predict, since the spacecraft is orbiting so quickly that a difference of a few minutes could lead to a dramatically changed location – let alone what amounts to almost a full day’s worth of possible times.
But the re-entry should be somewhere on this useful map.
European Space Agency gives final predictions for rocket’s re-entry
The European Space Agency’s latest – and last – prediction has arrived.
It shows that it expects the re-entry to occur at 3.15am, UTC. But there is window of 9 hours and 25 minutes – meaning it could happen any time between Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.
Because of that large window, and the high speed of the spacecraft, it is impossible to say where that re-entry will happen, or where any parts of the object might fall. Even eight hours before the re-entry, any prediction of location can be as much as “two earth resolutions” out, the space agency notes.
China launches another rocket
Last night, UK time, China launched an older rocket up to space to put some satellites into orbit.
Luckily, the Chang Zheng 2C won’t come back down for a couple of decades, and the rocket is a lot smaller so sould be safer when it does.
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