China is closely tracking runaway rocket set to fall back to Earth this weekend

CHINA has said it is closely tracking a runaway rocket that will fly back through the atmosphere next weekend.

Remnants of the massive rocket will ricochet back to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry but pose little risk to anyone on the ground, the Beijing government said on Wednesday.

A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China's Wentian Space Station Laboratory Module after liftoff from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on July 24, 2022. Debris from the rocket will fall back to Earth this weekend


A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China’s Wentian Space Station Laboratory Module after liftoff from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on July 24, 2022. Debris from the rocket will fall back to Earth this weekendCredit: Alamy

The Long March 5B rocket launched on Sunday to deliver a laboratory module to China’s new orbiting space station, which is under construction.

It was the third flight of China’s most powerful rocket since it was first launched in 2020.

As with the first two flights, the rocket’s entire main core stage – which is 100 feet (30 meters) long and weighs 22 tons (about 48,500 pounds) – has already reached low orbit.

According to American experts, once atmospheric friction pulls it down, it is expected to tumble back toward Earth.

Eventually the rocket body will disintegrate as it falls through the atmosphere.

But it’s large enough that numerous boulders are likely to survive fiery re-entry into rain debris over an area about 2,000 km (1,240 miles) long and about 70 km (44 miles) wide, independent US analysts said on Wednesday.

The probable location of the debris field cannot be determined in advance.

Experts will be able to narrow down the potential impact zone closer to reentry in the coming days.

The latest available re-entry from tracking data projects will be around 1:24 am UK time on Sunday, plus or minus 16 hours, according to Aerospace Corp., a government-funded non-profit research center near Los Angeles.

The overall risk to people and property on the ground is fairly low, aerospace analyst Ted Muelhaupt told reporters in a news conference.

That’s because 75 percent of the Earth’s surface in the potential path of debris is water, desert, or jungle.

Nevertheless, there is a possibility that parts of the rocket will fall over a populated area.

This is known to have happened in May 2020, when fragments of another Chinese Long March 5B landed in Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported, said Muelhaupt.

In contrast, he said, the United States and most other space nations generally put in the extra expense of designing their rockets to avoid large, uncontrolled re-entry.

This imperative has largely been met since much of NASA’s Skylab space station fell from orbit and landed in Australia in 1979.

Overall, the odds of someone being injured or killed by falling chunks of rockets this weekend range from one in 1,000 to one in 230.

That’s well above the internationally recognized risk threshold of 1 in 10,000, he told reporters.

But the risk for a single person is far less, on the order of six chances in 10 trillion. In comparison, the probability of being struck by lightning is about 80,000 times higher.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the likelihood of debris harming aviation or people and property on the ground is very slim. He said most of the rocket’s components would be destroyed on re-entry.

Last year, Nasa and others accused China of being opaque after the government in Beijing remained silent about the estimated debris trajectory or re-entry window of their final Long March rocket flight in May 2021.

Debris from this flight eventually landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean.

A few hours after Zhao spoke on Wednesday, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced the approximate location of its latest rocket in a rare public statement.

As of 4:00 p.m. (0800 GMT), the agency said the rocket is orbiting the globe in an elliptical orbit that is 163.2 miles (263.2 km) high at its farthest point and 116.6 miles (176.6 km) high at its closest point.

No estimated reentry details were released by the CMSA on Wednesday.

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