BEIJING – A massive 10-story rocket booster is orbiting the planet, and expert skywatchers are unsure when and where it will fall back to Earth.
China’s Long March 5 rocket lifted off from Hainan Island on Sunday, carrying a payload bound for the Tiangong Space Station. The rocket spent roughly eight minutes in flight before it released the payload and shed its 23-ton core booster, putting it in a temporary orbit, according to The Associated Press.
While the booster is expected to burn up during re-entry eventually, some debris would likely reach the Earth’s surface, according to Spaceflight Now.
In previous launches, China had not been able to control the re-entry of the booster. It’s unclear if China has changed the design of the rocket.
“It’s possible that the rocket designers could have made some minor change to the rocket that would let them then propulsively deorbit the stage, but I don’t expect so,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told the New York Times.
In the two most recent Long March 5 launches, the core booster has reentered the atmosphere out of control. According to Forbes, one booster fell over the Ivory Coast in 2020, reportedly damaging a house. In 2021, debris from a Chinese rocket fell into the Indian Ocean without incident.
Previously, the European Space Agency predicted a “risk zone” that encompasses “any portion of Earth’s surface between about 41.5 N and 41.5 S latitude,” CNN reported. Those coordinates covered a wide swath of the Earth, including North America south of New York, South America, Africa, Australia, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Areas in Asia south of Japan were also possible locales for the space debris.
According to a study published in “Nature Astronomy” this month, researchers say that there is a “10% chance of one or more casualties over a decade” caused by rocket body reentry based on current launch practices.
In 2021, China said that they believed the booster posed little threat to people on the ground.
“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbing said at a briefing, obtained by AP.
So far, there are no recorded instances of a human being killed by space debris reentering the atmosphere, the The Washington Post reported. In 1961, a cow in Cuba was killed, according to Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World.
In 2021, the Times reported that an out-of-control SpaceX rocket stage re-entered Earth’s atmosphere near Seattle. The newspaper reported that pieces of the rocket landed on a farmer’s property.