"Giant" piece of Chinese rocket set to hit Earth this weekend
Although it's extremely unlikely to hurt anyone on the ground, the small chance it could happen is a concern, experts have said.
Part of China's largest rocket, the Long March 5B, is set to hit Earth this weekend after launching a section of the country's new space station last month.
According to the Aerospace Corporation - a space-focused research and development center - during the launch, part of the rocket reached orbital velocity instead of falling downrange as is common practice.
That placed the rocket piece in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged towards "an uncontrolled reentry".
The rocket piece’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means that reentry could be as far north as Chicago, New York City, Rome and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and Chile.
That places any of the locations within the potential reentry path of the "giant" piece of rocket that is 98 feet long by 16.5 feet wide and weighs 21 metric tons.
As to when this will happen, the latest prediction for its reentry is Sunday, 9 May at 3.43am Coordinated Universal Time, give or take 16 hours.
However, the Aerospace Corporation stated: "It is still too early to determine a meaningful debris footprint".
Our latest prediction for CZ-5B rocket body reentry is:
?09 May 2021 03:43 UTC ± 16 hours
Reentry will be along one of the ground tracks shown here. It is still too early to determine a meaningful debris footprint. Follow this page for updates: https://t.co/p2AU9zE3y2 pic.twitter.com/MgzRAOTJnk
— The Aerospace Corporation (@AerospaceCorp) May 6, 2021
While it's unclear exactly how much of the rocket piece will survive reentry and reach the Earth's surface - as the melting point of the materials used will be a factor - the Aerospace Corporation is expecting five to nine metric tons.
In a statement, Marlon Sorge - an engineer with the Aerospace Corporation said: "What makes this reentry particularly noteworthy is that it will occur between 41.5 deg N and 41.5 deg S latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world’s population lives.
"However, the statistical risk to any one person of being struck by falling space debris is so low that a colleague of mine jokes that if reentry predictions put his house directly under the path, he’d go out with a camera and watch."
However, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, told the New York Times that it was "negligent" and "irresponsible" of China for failing to control the path of its rocket.
He described the threat posed by the rocket debris as unlikely but high enough to be of concern.
For more about the reentry, see here.