An out-of-control spent rocket fired by China in recent days is racing back to Earth, and what is left of it is expected to affect Earth at some point in the coming days. On the almost one-year anniversary of such an event, launched last year on May 11 by an identical type of rocket, the US government is once again watching the skies for the potential impact of this space debris. As it is out of control and moving erratically, experts are not sure exactly where it will land an hour or two before; as it travels at speeds above 15,000 mph, it may be too late to warn people of the impending impact zone.
On Thursday, Long March 5B, a variant of China’s largest rocket, launched the 22.5-meter Tianhe module for a space station China is building. Unable to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) due to restrictions imposed by the United States, China set about building its own, called Tiangong. Construction of the space station should be completed by next year, with another 10 major launches planned this year to deliver components to the station in space. As the ISS is due to retire after 2024, Tiangong may remain the only operating space station in Earth orbit.
The long March 5, developed by the Chinese Academy of Car Launch Technology, roughly corresponds to the capabilities of American rockets such as the ULA Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The massive rocket that was used to launch the GOES-R and GOES-S orbiting satellites was the ULA Atlas V; despite its size, it is significantly smaller and less powerful than the Long March 5th.
The main stage of Long March 5 has approximately 7 times the mass of the second stage of Space X Falcon 9. The second stage of SpaceX Falcon 9 failed to drop properly after launch in March; made an uncontrolled re-entry over the Pacific Northwest, dropping large debris into a farm field there. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The Wenchang facility on Hainan Island allows launch vehicles to soar over the South China Sea; previous launches were lifted by inland launch equipment, forcing the missile stages used to fall to land. Previous missile crashes have crashed into people’s homes in China. In the United States, such launches take off from launch pads near water, allowing spent rocket stages to return to the ocean. Prior to such an event, NASA, in partnership with local government agencies, set the intended spray area as a “no-fly” / “no-boat” area until the debris was safely lowered.
However, as was the case when China launched an experimental capsule into space last year, it appears that the main stage of March 5 will return to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, potentially threatening to strike some location on the planet. While experts believe that much of the large spent rocket will burn when re-entered, it is possible that some parts of it, such as its massive engines, will survive re-entry and hit Earth. The range of the spent missile is approximately 100 feet long and 16 feet wide. This is approximately the same size as 4 school buses parked 2 by 2.
In 2020, Aerospace Corporation tracked falling space debris. In March 2018, Aerospace also tracked a falling Chinese space station. It eventually crashes into the ocean. It is too early to know exactly where and when this giant rocket or its wreckage will crash.
US space forces are tracking a falling Chinese rocket. Established in December 2019, the US space force is busy. If an entity in space or a space crash threatens US interests, they will work in partnership with other military branches and government teams to respond to the threat.
Because there is more ocean water and uninhabited land than inhabited, chances are that this unbridled rocket will affect an uninhabited area. However, it is too early to say for sure whether this will happen. In last year’s incident, the out-of-control rocket flew directly over Los Angeles and New York and crashed 15 minutes later off the west coast of Africa. Debris has been reported in the village of Mahounou in Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire. If the re-entry happened 15 minutes earlier, New York could see significant damage or loss of life from the impact of the fast-moving debris.