Out-of-control Chinese rocket expected to crash into Earth this weekend

Out-of-control Chinese rocket expected to crash into Earth this weekend

The Chinese Long March 5B rocket launched Tianhe, the core module of the Chinese Space Station.


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It sounds like the plotline for a Bruce Willis movie: The Pentagon said Tuesday it’s tracking a large Chinese rocket that’s out of control and expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere this weekend. The US Space Command is tracking the trajectory, Defense Department spokesperson Mike Howard said in a statement cited by CNN and expects the Chinese Long March 5B rocket’s appearance “around May 8.”

Howard said the rocket’s exact entry point won’t be known until within hours of reentry, but daily updates on its location will be provided at the Space Track website.

Aerospace.org is also tracking the rocket, and as of Tuesday evening, was predicting a May 8 arrival, around 9:30 p.m. PT — though predictions may change.

But don’t panic. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University who tracks and catalogues satellite orbits, told CNN “the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this.” 

Because the Pacific Ocean covers so much of the Earth, the debris will likely splash down in Pacific waters somewhere, he said.

McDowell also adjusted the time period when the debris is expected to arrive to between May 8 and 10.

The rocket helped launch Tianhe, the core module in China’s new, next-generation space station, on April 28. The space base is scheduled to be completed late in 2022 to serve as a scientific research outpost for China over the next decade, and the only other operational space habitat outside of the International Space Station. 

And what goes up, must come down.

Back in 2018, similar events took place, when China’s out-of-control Tiangong-1 space station reentered the atmosphere over the ocean near Tahiti. No one was injured, and the debris either burned up or found a new home on the floor of the south Pacific.

However, it’s not just about what comes down. Space junk, discarded rocket boosters, scraps of metal and defunct satellites, can remain in orbit for years — even decades. Almost 3,000 satellites are in orbit and remain in operation, but almost three times that amount are defunct. 

“As we’ve launched more and more satellites into space, the problem has gotten progressively worse,” James Blake, an astrophysicist Ph.D. student at the University of Warwick studying orbital debris, told CNET last November.

As of April 5, McDowell suggests we still don’t know where the booster will come down but it’s return is likely to occur on May 8 or 9.

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