A large Chinese rocket is set to make an uncontrolled return to Earth’s atmosphere, but it is not yet clear exactly where and when the wreckage will hit our planet.
China’s Long March 5B rocket “unpredictably” crashed back to Earth after part of the new T-shaped Chinese space station was launched on Thursday local time in Wenchang, according to SpaceNews. The 22.5-metric tonne module of the Tianhe space station is in proper orbit after separating, as planned, from the rocket’s main stage, which is now expected to re-enter in a few days or about a week.
“This will be one of the biggest cases of uncontrolled re-entry of a spacecraft and could potentially land in a populated area,”
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Drawing the trajectory of this falling rocket stage is difficult, if not impossible, as there are too many uncertainties associated with calculating the effect of atmospheric resistance on the main module. The Earth’s atmosphere can expand or contract with solar activity, making it difficult to calculate exactly when and where the rocket will land.
“The high speed of the rocket’s body means that it orbits the Earth approximately every 90 minutes, so a change of just a few minutes in re-entry time leads to a re-entry point thousands of kilometers away,” SpaceNews said, adding that the orbital tilt at 41.5 degrees means that “it passes a little further north from New York, Madrid and Beijing and all the way south to South Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and can re-enter any point in this area.”
Expected figures for the rocket’s return amid several major wreckage events over the past few decades, including China’s Tiangong space station and Europe’s Gravity field and steady state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE). However, most debris tends to burn in the atmosphere and only the largest pieces would fall to the ground. Starting states also usually try in the best way to direct a returning piece of debris back to Earth and give estimates of where it may fall.
On Twitter, Harvard University space observer and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell is planning the return of Long March against other major debris, not least the uncontrolled return of NASA’s 76-tonne Skylab space station nearly 42 years ago. Ground-based controllers were able to make the space station somewhat of a planned re-entry point over the Indian Ocean, but the debris stretched much longer than expected.
“To sum up: this is the biggest of all lately, but not as big as Skylab and the like during the day,” McDowell said on Twitter about the return of Long March 5B.
The altitude plot this morning; the Tianhe space station remains in orbit 352 x 385 km. The main stage of the CZ-5B has disintegrated from its initial orbit from 170 x 375 km to 165 x 326 km; sliding into the perigee causes a decrease in the apogee. pic.twitter.com/X0ZQIiEqUEM May 3, 2021
China is planning a busy schedule for the construction of the space station, with state media reporting that construction should be completed by the end of 2022. Like the International Space Station, the Chinese complex will include several modules requiring 10 additional launches: two more launches per module, four manned missions and four cargo ship flights, as reported by the China Global Television Network (CGTN).
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.