Uncontrollably, a 21-ton fragment of a Chinese rocket is falling down to Earth, but it’s uncertain where or when the debris will strike our planet. China’s Long March 5B launched the Tianhe module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) last week, and it is supposed to be back in operation by 2022. As per SpaceNews, the rocket that launched the model into low earth orbit also reached a temporary orbit, indicating that it would soon allow one of the biggest uncontrolled re-entries of a space machine into Earth’s atmosphere.
The Chinese rocket is expected to reach Earth’s atmosphere on May 8, and US Space Command is monitoring its trajectory due to concerns about where its debris might strike
“US Space Command is aware of and monitoring the position of the Chinese Long March 5B in space,” said US Department of Defense spokesman Mike Howard in a statement on May 4, “but its specific entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is anticipated around May 8.”
So according to SpaceNews, “this would be one of the largest instances of uncontrolled reentry of a spacecraft and could possibly land on a populated region.” However, agencies agree that the core stage falling in an uninhabited place, such as the Earth’s oceans, is more likely.
“Until then, starting May 4, the 18th Space Control Squadron will provide daily updates on the rocket body’s location on www.space-track.org. “As more detail becomes relevant, we will provide it,” the statement said.
This morning's data on the altitude-versus-time of the Tianhe / CZ-5B objects. The core stage orbit continues to slowly decay as expected. pic.twitter.com/E8EPJ9yzRu— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 4, 2021
The 22.5-metric-ton Tianhe core module was successfully launched into orbit by the Long March 5B late on April 28 Eastern. However, instead of dropping within a fixed area downrange, the 30-meter-tall, 5-meter-diameter Long March 5B first stage reached orbital velocity.
According to space detection by the US 18th Space Control Squadron, the empty rocket body is now in a 162 by 306-kilometer orbit, down from an original 170 by 372-kilometer orbit.
The rocket that is falling down to Earth appears to be the same space module whose launch was hailed by a Chinese Communist Party body in order to ridicule India’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
On its official Sina Weibo account last week, the Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission posted images of the Tianhe module launch and fuel burn-off alongside what appeared to be an image of an Indian cremation site, captioned “China lighting a fire versus India lighting a fire.” The post also included a hashtag showing the number of new COVID-19 cases in India, which exceeded 4 lakh on Saturday last week.
On April 28, the rocket engaged in the launch of Tianhe, the main module of China’s latest, next-generation space station. The space base is expected to be completed late in 2022, and will serve as China’s only operating space habitat outside of the International Space Station for the next decade.
And all that goes up has to come down. When China’s out-of-control Tiangong-1 space station re-entered the atmosphere over the ocean near Tahiti in 2018, similar incidents occurred. There were no injuries, and the debris either burned up or found a new home on the south Pacific floor.
As per a May 4 report from the Aerospace Corporation, reentry will take place on May 9 at 12:37 a.m. Eastern (04:37 Universal time), with a margin of error of 28 hours.