It’s 10 stories tall and twice as heavy as a school bus, and it’s set to return to Earth this weekend – but no one really knows where or when.
A piece of rocket launched by China in late April is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere late Saturday or early Sunday, experts and officials say.
The 98-foot-long, 20-ton section of China’s Long March 5B rocket tumbles into space in an uncontrolled orbit at 18,000 miles per hour after taking off last month with part of the country’s new space station.
And while it’s common for pieces of rockets to fall back to Earth, this particular section has raised concerns as its lack of control means experts don’t know where it will fall.
Scientists say the risk of him killing someone after returning to the planet’s atmosphere is low but not impossible: there is a small chance that the debris could hit New York, Los Angeles, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, the Nigerian capital of Abuja or Beijing. . It will more likely land in an ocean or in the wild.
Asked about the rocket on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said it would burn on its way home, calling its descent “a common international practice.”
“The likelihood of interfering with aviation or ground activities is extremely low.” he said.
Meanwhile, China’s state-owned newspaper Global Times said it would likely splash into the sea.
California-based Aerospace Corporation estimates that 75% of this will happen. He says between 60 and 80 percent of rocket remnants will likely burn – but the rest will likely hit the ground or water.
The risk is low, but experts say re-entry is part of a bigger problem that will only get worse, as countries launch more rockets that could either cause damage by collapsing on Earth – or collide and create a cloud of space debris that could endanger other satellites or astronauts.
“It’s like playing the lottery,” said Don Pollacco, professor of physics at the University of England at Warwick, who tracks space debris. “You have a big chunk of metal in space that’s in a descending orbit because it’s rubbing against the atmosphere.”
“It will hit the atmosphere, bounce back a bit and it’s correct to say that most of the planet is covered in water, so that’s where it will likely land,” he added.
“But there’s a chance it isn’t.”
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US Space Command is tracking Chinese debris – along with 27,000 other space debris. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured reporters on Thursday that the United States has no plans to shoot him.
“We have the capacity to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to take it down,” he said in a briefing. “We hope he lands in a place where he doesn’t harm anyone, hopefully in the ocean or somewhere like that.”
The aerospace company’s latest prediction is that the rocket would crash in Sudan around 11:45 p.m. ET on Saturday.
But its confidence interval is plus or minus 16 hours – leaving open a huge window on the planet where the object could land. There are also other variables.
“At that kind of altitude, we don’t really know much about the atmosphere, mainly because it changes all the time,” Pollacco said. “If there’s a big sun rocket, it makes the atmosphere expand a bit – and the rocket has a funny shape.”
Some experts say this is the latest example of China’s irresponsibility with its spacecraft.
Large rockets like this are usually not meant to reach orbit, but rather crash into water before they reach that height. Alternatively, a rocket can use its engines to control its descent at sea or in an unpopulated area.
It did not happen this time.
A year ago, another piece of Chinese rocket that had carried another part for the space station fell uncontrolled over New York and Los Angeles before crashing in Ivory Coast, South Africa. West, where it damaged buildings but caused no injuries.
Last month’s launch was the first of 11 such missions planned by China to build the new space station.
While the United States and other Western countries don’t have the same record of letting their rockets crash uncontrollably, there are other concerns about their approaches to orbital spaceflight, according to Pollacco de the University of Warwick.
He said many countries “often park their debris” in lower orbits, leaving rocket parts in space where they can stay for years.
“We try to follow them but we cannot control them,” he said. “So we are sitting here waiting for a collision to happen – we too are playing a lottery.”