Debris from a giant Chinese rocket booster will fall uncontrollably to Earth this weekend, raining debris over unknown locations

Debris from a giant Chinese rocket booster will fall uncontrollably to Earth this weekend, raining debris over unknown locations

China's Long March 5B rocket before launch.

China’s Long March 5B rocket before launch on July 18.CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

  • Debris from a Chinese rocket is expected to fall to Earth at an undisclosed location sometime this weekend.

  • The massive Chinese booster rocket travels at 17,000 miles per hour and weighs about 25 tons.

  • Experts expect between 5 and 9 tons – or up to 18,000 pounds – of material will fall from the sky.

At this moment, a huge Chinese rocket is about to crash to earth. Experts say the rocket junk dubbed Long March 5B is likely to hit Earth this weekend.

China’s rocket launched on July 24 to deliver a laboratory module to China’s Tiangong space station, which is under construction. Researchers at Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) said the rocket debris was descending and would begin an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere sometime Saturday or Sunday.

There is “a non-zero probability that the surviving debris will end up in a populated area,” CORDS researchers wrote on the center’s website.

Using tracking data, the researchers created a map projecting a potential array of locations for space junk reentry, but the actual reentry point is still uncertain. The blue and yellow lines show all the places where the booster rocket could fall.

Graphic of possible re-entry locations.

Tracking data projects the likely location of debris re-entry.The Aerospace Society

The yellow satellite icon shows where the booster will be right in the middle of the 36 hour time window in which it could potentially drop. (The symbol is not a prediction of where the booster will land.)

This is the third time China has launched a Long March 5B and dropped its body uncontrollably to the ground. China is preparing to launch the rocket again in October, Spaceflight Now said.

At this point, it’s impossible to estimate exactly where the rocket stage will fall.

“The catch is that the density of the upper atmosphere varies over time. The weather is actually up there. That makes it impossible to predict exactly at which point the satellite will have plowed through enough atmosphere to melt and break up and eventually reenter,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said at a briefing on Thursday.

How fast the debris hurtles through space can create huge discrepancies in the predictions, McDowell added. If you have an hour off, “because it’s going 17,000 mph, you’re 17,000 miles from where it’s going to come down, and that’s the big challenge in all of this,” he said.

Aerospace Corporation experts say the general rule of thumb is that up to 40% of a large object’s mass reaches the ground. In this case, they expect between 5 and 9 tons of material to fall – up to 18,000 pounds.

A large white rocket with red markings rolls down a tree lined avenue with a large metal assembly building in the background

Experts predict debris from China’s space rocket will fall to Earth sometime this weekend.CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Normally, after a launch, rockets push up into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth via remote sea areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled re-entry”. It’s not clear why China didn’t design or code the Long March 5B for this.

“On the surface it looks irresponsible. And it’s conceivable that they have enough technical data to know it’s going to come down in the South Pacific, even without being forced to. That is an option. But, you know, having this big thing fall out of the sky would be uncomfortable,” said John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and former NASA Advisory Council member.

If missile fragments land on people or their property, China could be liable for the damage. Under the Outer Space Liability Treaty of 1972, the launching nation is liable for its rockets and any damage caused by them.

Robin Dickey, space policy analyst at The Aerospace Corporation, said current garbage reduction guidelines and long-term sustainability guidelines from the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space include recommendations to minimize the risk to people and property on Earth from uncontrolled re-entry , both of which were supported by China. “The problem is that they’re not very technical or specific, and they’re also non-binding. There are no legal ramifications for failing to take steps deemed feasible to mitigate risk,” Dickey said at Thursday’s briefing.

“One thing I’ll be watching closely in response to things like this re-entry is who are the actors – the countries, individuals and companies – that are publicly responding to this behavior and saying it’s irresponsible because that will show whether we’ll be able to come up with stronger or clearer norms about where the line between OK and not OK is,” Dickey said.

The same type of rocket shot into space on May 5, 2020.  Later, some of its debris fell into an African village.

The same type of rocket shot into space on May 5, 2020. Later, some of its debris fell into an African village.Luo Yunfei/China News Service via Getty Images

In May 2021, parts of another Chinese Long March missile landed in the Indian Ocean. And in May 2020, another Chinese missile broke apart, dropping debris and causing property damage in Africa.

“You took part in the UN discussions on codes of good behavior. So they are aware of the need for norms of behavior. Whether they ignore it on purpose in this case – it’s hard to imagine that they would be irresponsible,” Logsdon said.

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