Chinese rocket Long March 5B hurtling back to Earth may hit Saturday

A huge section of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket is falling back to Earth, and debris can land sometime on Saturday night or later – if the rocket doesn’t burn on the way down.

According to calculations by Aerospace Corporation, a California-based nonprofit group that operates a space research and development center, the rocket could hit Earth at around 11:30 p.m. EST on Saturday.

Where exactly remains a mystery – for now. Beginning Saturday morning, Aerospace Corporation projections have brought much of the US close to projected missile paths after the predicted re-entry time. A projection on Saturday morning placed the missile’s predicted reentry across the Atlantic.

Another model from showed that the rocket will likely land somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

“The core of this rocket is so massive and burns for so long,” said Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station in 2004-2005. “That makes it really unpredictable where it’s going to come down.”

US officials are closely monitoring the missile’s trajectory. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is “aware and knows that space command is literally tracking these missile debris,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

China’s government has announced that most of the missile will burn up upon re-entry.

A long 5B rocket from March launches from the Wenchang spacecraft launch site in Wenchang, southern China’s Hainan Province.AP

Here’s what you should know:

When and why did China launch the rocket?

The Long March 5B rocket with China’s Tianhe Space Station core module was launched on April 29, 2021 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province. The space station known as Heavenly Harmony will be China’s first to house astronauts over the long term.

China is planning 10 more launches to put additional pieces of the space station into orbit.

Will the Chinese missile fall to earth?

Yes, and “it may not be good,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University’s Astrophysics Center, told the Guardian earlier this week.

Typically, discarded nuclear or first stage missiles dive into the sea shortly after launch and do not go into orbit like them.

The rocket’s sheer size also makes it difficult to predict its reentry, said Chiao, the former astronaut.

“You have this 22-ton piece of rocket debris and it’s going to orbit the earth … and it’s going to come down wherever it comes down,” Chiao said.

What is China saying about the missile?

According to China, most of the missile that falls to earth will burn up on re-entry and pose little risk to local people or property. The nation’s government calmed the world on Friday.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China is closely monitoring the missile re-entry into the atmosphere, Reuters reported.

“The likelihood that this process will cause damage to the ground is extremely slim,” he said.

China’s space agency has yet to say whether the main stage of the giant Long March 5B rocket will be controlled or if it will spiral out of control.

Where will the Chinese missile land?

Nobody knows for sure. McDowell told CNN that the speed at which the missile is moving makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly where debris could be directed – even minor changes in circumstances will drastically alter its trajectory.

The debris is being pulled to Earth by increasing collisions with molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, according to Space News.

The debris orbit covers part of the planet from New Zealand to Newfoundland.

“It’s too early to know exactly when the missile body will re-enter. But we know that it will be somewhere along that yellow and blue line,” the organization said on Saturday of its current predictions. “In the current re-entry point forecast, the yellow satellite symbol circled in orange is fixed. 🛰 = X marks the point (for the time being).”

It’s also too early to be sure where debris might end up, but the organization suggested that a trail of debris could be up to 1,200 miles and 60 miles wide.

How big is the Chinese rocket that falls to earth?

It’s roughly 100 feet long and is one of the largest pieces of space debris to fall to Earth.

“It’s almost the body of the missile, as I understand it, almost intact, coming down,” Kirby said this week.

Has a rocket ever fallen to earth?

Yes. Last year, part of a Chinese rocket, one of the largest pieces of uncontrolled space debris of all time, passed right over Los Angeles and Central Park in New York City before landing in the Atlantic, CNN said.

The 18-ton rocket that fell last May was the heaviest debris to fall uncontrollably since the Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

Source: The Associated Press;; USA TODAY research

Released 13:09 UTC May. 8, 2021
Updated at 8:10 p.m. UTC May. 8, 2021

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