A HUGE Chinese rocket making an out-of-control tumble from space looks set to crash back to Earth this weekend as experts warn that debris from the impact could hit an inhabited area.
Calculations of the 21-ton booster’s trajectory predict that it will fall on Saturday, US time, though where it will land “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its re-entry”, the Pentagon said.
The US Space Command is tracking debris from the spacecraft, which lifted off last week carrying the first module of China’s new space station.
At roughly 30 metres (100ft) long, the booster stage would be among the biggest pieces of space debris ever to fall back to Earth.
Experts have warned that debris from the crash could land anywhere in a “red zone” that contains major cities including New York and Madrid.
However, the ejected space junk will most likely hit the Pacific Ocean near the equator after passing over eastern US cities, Space Command said.
The giant rocket was taking the first module of China’s new space stationCredit: Getty
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is “aware and he knows the space command is tracking, literally tracking this rocket debris,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.
China on April 29 launched the first of three elements for its station atop the Long March 5B rocket that is now being tracked.
The body of the rocket “is almost intact coming down,” Kirby said, adding that its re-entry is expected on Saturday.
After its separation from the space station module, the rocket began to orbit the Earth in an irregular trajectory as it slowly lost altitude.
That makes any predictions about where it will re-enter the atmosphere or fall back to the ground nearly impossible.
It could end up breaking apart upon entry, with only smaller debris bits falling to Earth.
Even if the rocket falls from the sky mostly intact, there is a good chance it will splash down into the ocean, which covers 70 per cent of Earth’s surface.
But neither of those outcomes is certain, and there is a chance the rocket could crash land into an inhabited area or onto a ship.
The rocket lifted off from from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan province on April 29Credit: AFP
Kirby said it is “too soon” to know whether any action, such as destroying the space debris, can be taken if human-occupied regions are threatened.
“We’re tracking it. We’re following it as closely as we can,” he said.
“It’s just a little too soon right now to know where it’s going to go or what, if anything, can be done about that.”
The rocket is travelling at four miles a second and could fall anywhere between 41 degrees north and south of the equator, an area that also takes in Beijing, Sydney, Delhi and Rio de Janeiro.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting the earth, said Monday that the Long March 5b’s core stage is seven times bigger than the SpaceX rocket Falcon 9.
Debris from the Falcon 9 rocket came crashing down near Seattle last month, dropping debris on Washington State in the process.
McDowell said he hopes that China is developing the ability for the Long March 5b to make a controlled re-entry.
“I think by current standards it’s unacceptable to let it re-enter uncontrolled,” McDowell told Space News.
Astronauts will live in the Tian He moduleCredit: Getty
“Since 1990 nothing over 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to re-enter uncontrolled.”
Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Program Office for the European Space Agency, said: “China is aware of the potential uncontrolled descent.
“It is always difficult to assess the amount of surviving mass and number of fragments without knowing the design of the object, but a reasonable rule-of-thumb is about 20-40 per cent of the original dry mass.”
In May 2020, another Long March 5B rocket slammed through the atmosphere, partially burning up on its descent.
The core fell largely into the Atlantic Ocean, but some debris landed in West Africa.
According to the South China Morning Post, some chunks of debris crashed into inhabited villages in the Ivory Coast, though no injuries were reported.
The module that the rocket was delivering, named Tian He, will become become living quarters for three crew members.
China aims to complete its Chinese Space Station, known as Tiangong by the end of 2022, state media reported, after several further modules are launched.
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