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This week, experts expect China’s rogue rocket to re-enter earth under uncontrolled circumstances. According to the rocket’s trajectory, it will fall back to earth sometime between 10 a.m. ET and  May 8 and 11 a.m. However, though experts can’t pinpoint the time it will reach the atmosphere nor the location, they urge the population against worrying. 

“If you are standing in the wrong square meter of Earth of the 250 trillion square meters that its debris might hit, then you are in trouble. Otherwise, relax,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, who is tracking the object, wrote on Twitter.

The Heavenly Palace

In an effort to establish a permanent human presence in space, Beijing planned to create the “Heavenly Palace” space station. Thus, on April 29, China launched the Long March 5B rocket, propelling the first module. This is the same rocket descending on earth. After the launch, the rocket’s core stage separated from the module and started to orbit around our planet ever since. 

Out of control and without any direction from the ground, the rocket is now gradually losing altitude. Therefore, the massive core will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere with no 100 percent guarantee of landing in unpopulated areas. 

Furthermore, the Chinese rocket poses as one of the most enormous artificial objects to make an uncontrolled return to Earth since 1991. “Every few months, there’s some small piece of space debris that gets found on the ground, but we haven’t had this kind of 20-ton object re-entering uncontrolled for 30 years until the Chinese started their 5B launches,” McDowell said.

The rocket’s landing location

Since the rocket’s trajectory spread farther north than New York City and as far south as New Zealand, any areas between its orbital path are potential crash sites. 

Moreover, the object is now traveling almost 18,000 miles an hour while orbiting around the earth nearly every 90 minutes. The time and place of the rocket’s unseemly return depend on various unknown and known factors, including the air density, the atmosphere’s puffiness, the strength of the wind, and the unpredictable solar activity. Therefore, the tiniest amount of miscalculation will result in the object landing in another content. 

“This is a huge, 18-hour window, and the time/location of re-entry will continue to vary wildly,” the spacecraft tracking company Space-track.org posted on Twitter. Fortunately, as the orbit continues to decrease,  experts will be able to better predict the time and place of the landing. 

The core landing

Any object entering the earth’s atmosphere will encounter increasingly dense air. The air’s friction will, in return, drag and often breaks the object apart. Though the possibility of the atmosphere destroying  22 tons of the rocket’s core is low, the atmosphere will decrease the damage. On the other hand, the size of the object landing on earth is also hard to predict since the debris depends on multiple factors, such as the rocket’s shape, mass, and material. 

Grounds for worry

Despite the uncertainties, experts are calming the masses. The chances of the debris landing anywhere near a populated area are small. In addition, it will most likely not land on “land.” The majority of earth is made out of waters, and the chances are that the core will land most probably in the Pacific Ocean. 

For example, in 2018, when China lost control of the Tiangong-1, the spacecraft landed the Pacific Ocean under similar circumstances.

Space debris falling on earth

Though the most enormous, the Chinese rocket isn’t the first debris to fall back on earth. While it isn’t supposed to be the norm, a possibility always remains whenever a spacecraft is involved. For example, in March, SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket broke up over the Pacific, even landing some debris in Washington. Nonetheless, when they occur, such instances are either unintentional or under a massive amount of control. 

On the other hand, precedented evidence reveals that china’s strategy for launching large spacecraft often includes letting the spacecraft stages fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled fashion. Therefore, according to many experts, such methods are extremely dangerous. 

“There needs to be an agreed-upon framework for how we’re going to operate in space safely,” said Bridenstine.

References:
Amos, B. J. (2021, May 8). Big Chinese rocket segment set to fall to Earth. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57013540Collen, J. (2021, May 7). China’s rocket out of control but risk of damage low, say experts. Phy.Org. https://phys.org/news/2021-05-china-rocket-experts.htmlDrake, N. (2021, May 7). Why you (probably) shouldn’t panic about the falling Chinese rocket. Science. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/why-you-probably-shouldnt-panic-about-the-falling-chinese-rocketHowell, E. (2021, May 8). A huge Chinese rocket booster is falling from space, but don’t worry. It likely won’t hit you. Space.Com. https://www.space.com/china-rocket-falling-from-space-dont-worryRourke, A. (2021, May 7). ‘Out-of-control’ Chinese rocket falling to Earth could partially survive re-entry. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/04/out-of-control-chinese-rocket-tumbling-to-earth