SCIENCE

Heads up! Chinese rocket caught in orbit to fall to Earth

May 3, 2021, 1:26 PM | Updated: May 5, 2021, 10:15 am

The sky could literally be falling on us within the next week in the form of a Chinese rocket booster. 

Due to a failure on a Chinese rocket sent to orbit to begin construction of their own space station, a nearly 100-foot-tall, 21-ton rocket booster launched last week will make an uncontrolled re-entry this week and could land on a populated area.

The Long March 5B rocket that launched Wednesday successfully delivered the first  “Tianhe” module of their planned independent space station into orbit, but due to an error, one of their monstrous rocket engines also ended up in orbit. 

“Most expendable rocket first stages do not reach orbital velocity and reenter the atmosphere and land in a pre-defined reentry zone,” Andrew Jones from Space News wrote late last week.

“However this core stage is now also in orbit and is likely to make an uncontrolled reentry over the next days or week as growing interaction with the atmosphere drags it to Earth,” he continued, noting that this will likely be one of the largest uncontrolled re-entry of a spacecraft in history. 

 

Jones noted that while we don’t know exactly when or where the debris will land, the odds are that it will end up somewhere in the ocean. But, he said there is a possibility it could end up crashing into a number of major cities on the US east coast. 

According to ground trackers at aerospace.com the predicted reentry time in Utah time is 7:01 MDT Sunday, plus or minus 41 hours. 

Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Programme Office for the European Space Agency, said it’s difficult to assume how much debris will make it to the planet’s surface, but “a reasonable “rule-of-thumb” is about 20% to 40% of the original dry mass.”

The surviving mass will likely be parts of the rocket that were designed to be heat resistant like tanks and thrusters. Space News said whatever does survive will fall vertically through the atmosphere and hit the ground at its terminal velocity.

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