An out-of-control Chinese rocket ship is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere between 8 May 2021 and 10 May 2021.
The rocket in question, the Long March 5b, was launched from China’s Hainan province on 29 April 2021. Its mission was to launch the Tianhe core module, providing life support and living quarters for the crew in China’s Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) Space Station.
Although Chinese officials have yet to comment on the rocket’s re-entry, US Department of Defense spokesman Mike Howard stated that the exact point of entry into the Earth’s atmosphere can only be determined mere hours before its re-entry. This is due to the rocket’s orbital speed (27,600 kph) and its tumbling behaviour.
Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell mentioned that the Long March 5b rocket was not built with options that will allow it to land safely on water or slow its descent. “It’s just left in orbit the old fashioned way to reenter uncontrolled,” McDowell added, “and that is very unusual nowadays.”
McDowell also mentioned that the situation does not look good as the first Long March 5b launch became out of control back in 2020. A 12-metre long object from the rocket crashed into the village of Mahounou in Cote d’Ivoire around 12 May 2020. No reports of casualties or injuries have been filed when the object crashed. The accident caused NASA to rebuke China for the accident.
However, there is a huge possibility that the rocket and its debris will land on water instead. This is not because of an international effort, but because of statistics. Since Earth is made up of 75% water, the risk of a person being a victim or casualty of the rocket and its debris is quite small.
McDowell, however, told SpaceNews that its latitude is approximately level with New York, Madrid, Chile and Wellington, New Zealand. He also added that should the worst-case scenario happen, then the debris could hit someone and end up in “potentially a fatality but unlikely to see multiple casualties”. Expensive property damage is also expected if the debris and rocket impact inhabited land instead of open waters. But because of the 100-mile spread of the debris, McDowell believes only one or two pieces are likely to hit a populated area.
Written by John Paul Joaquin