This weekend, a massive Chinese rocket that has lost control will reenter Earth’s atmosphere, causing a final wave of concern before its debris hits somewhere on the planet.
According to a statement from Defense Department spokesperson Mike Howard, the Long March 5B rocket, which stands about 100 feet tall and weighs 22 tons, is scheduled to reach Earth’s atmosphere “around May 8.” The US Space Command is monitoring the rocket’s trajectory.
According to Howard, the rocket’s “exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere” won’t be known until hours after reentry, but the 18th Space Control Squadron is providing regular updates on the rocket’s position via the Space Track website.
The good news is that, while the sight of debris hurtling toward Earth is unsettling, it poses little risk to personal safety.
“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN this week.
The European Space Agency has forecast a “danger zone” that covers nearly all of the Americas south of New York, all of Africa and Australia, portions of Asia south of Japan, and Europe’s Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece.
The rocket’s incredible range is due in part to its blistering speed, which allows even minor shifts in circumstances to dramatically alter its trajectory.
“We expect it to reenter sometime between the eighth and 10th of May. And in that two-day period, it goes around the world 30 times,” McDowell said.
“The thing is traveling at like 18,000 miles an hour. And so if you’re an hour out at guessing when it comes down, you’re 18,000 miles out in saying where.”
Despite this, he said, the ocean remains the best bet for where the debris will fall since it covers the majority of the Earth’s surface. “If you want to gamble on where anything would fall on Earth, you can bet on the Pacific, since it encompasses the majority of the planet. It’s as simple as that “McDowell elaborated.
On April 29, the rocket placed a piece of the new Chinese space station into orbit, but was then left to hurtle through space uncontrollably before Earth’s gravity drew it back to Earth.
As compared to what other space agencies do, McDowell’s strategy deviates from “best practice.”
“Norms have been established,” he said. “There’s no international law or rule — nothing specific — but the practice of countries around the world has been: ‘Yeah, for the bigger rockets, let’s not leave our trash in orbit in this way.’ “
Hundreds of thousands of bits of unregulated garbage clutter Earth’s orbit, most of which are smaller than 10 centimeters — around 4 inches — despite recent attempts to better manage and minimize space debris. Objects are continuously dropping out of space, but the vast majority of them burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere before they can hit the surface.