A Long March-5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, stands at the launching area of the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23, 2021.
An enormous rocket body is shooting around the planet out of control, and it could fall back to Earth within the next few days.
The roughly 21-ton object is the core stage of China’s Long March 5b rocket. On Wednesday, China launched the first module of a new space station the country is building. Instead of falling into a pre-designated spot in the ocean, as is common for discarded rockets, the Long March 5b’s core stage started circling the planet, uncontrolled.
The rocket body is likely to fall back to Earth sometime in the next few days, journalist Andrew Jones, who covers China’s space program, reported for SpaceNews.
“I think by current standards it’s unacceptable to let it reenter uncontrolled,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting Earth, told Jones. “Since 1990 nothing over 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to reenter uncontrolled.”
The rocket stage measures about 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, according to Jones. When it falls out of orbit, it may burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but large chunks of debris could survive the fall. Most of the planet is ocean, so that’s where falling rocket bits are most likely to land. But they could still threaten inhabited areas.
“It is always difficult to assess the amount of surviving mass and number of fragments without knowing the design of the object, but a reasonable ‘rule-of-thumb’ is about 20-40% of the original dry mass,” Holger Krag, head of the Space Safety Programme Office for the European Space Agency, told Jones.
The rocket body’s path around Earth takes it “a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand,” according to Jones. It could fall back to Earth anywhere within this range.