You probably learned this week that China has successfully launched the first piece of what will become a brand new space station. The module was launched on Thursday, and China used one of its powerful Long March 5B rockets to push the material skyward. It was a big day for the Chinese space agency, and it garnered a lot of attention. Sadly, one of the facts that was not part of the initial buzz was the fact that China had no way of controlling its rocket stage which is now orbiting Earth and slowly falling back to the surface.
As SpaceNews reports, the central stage of the Long March 5B that put the “Heavenly Harmony” space station module into orbit is tumbling around our planet. The uncontrolled rocket component is absolutely huge, and it won’t be long before the pull of gravity gets too strong and falls back through the atmosphere back to us. Where will the pieces land? Nobody has any idea.
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Rocket stages that send satellites or other spacecraft into orbit around Earth regularly end up falling back to Earth. In the vast majority of cases, the rocket stages are in predictable areas, usually in the ocean. Some launches result in rocket stages reaching speeds that would allow them to climb around Earth, but these are often controlled with the help of burns that cause them to slow down and, again, harmlessly fall into the earth. the ocean or to burn in the atmosphere. In many cases, the material cannot withstand the intense friction of re-entry and is essentially vaporized.
In the case of the Chinese Long March 5B, the rocket has reached its orbital speed but will have a limited time before being brought back down. China does not appear to have used a controlled combustion feature, which makes the rocket very unpredictable. Its size will make it the largest uncontrolled spacecraft to re-enter the atmosphere, and it is possible that a sufficient amount of the rocket stage will survive reentry and impact the ground below.
So there’s a big rocket flying overhead and at some point over the next week or so it’s going to fall… somewhere. It moves extremely fast, completing an Earth orbit every 90 minutes or so, making it almost impossible to predict its reentry location. Should we panic? Hey, probably not.
The rocket will indeed burn in the atmosphere and the majority of it is expected to be completely destroyed in the process. It is possible that no debris will occur even on re-entry, but if it does, it will likely fall into the ocean. Earth has more ocean than anything else, and the chances of debris falling to land are relatively low. There’s even less chance of it impacting a populated area, and if we’re going to be really technical, the chances of it hitting someone or causing an injury are very, very, very low. It’s not zero, but it’s pretty close.
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