China’s rogue rocket is in an uncontrolled free-fall towards Earth and no one knows where or exactly when it will burn through Earth’s atmosphere, but the risk of debris hitting an inhabited area remains very small, experts said.
On April 29, China launched the first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station, a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.
The module was propelled by a powerful Long March 5B rocket, whose first stage is currently descending Earthward.
If Chinese ground engineers have no control over the booster stage’s trajectory, it is not due to a technical failure or some unexplained glitch. The rocket was designed that way.
From a low Earth orbit, bodies are drawn gradually by gravity towards the surface of the planet.
Such objects are usually consumed by heat as friction from an increasingly dense atmosphere increases on approach.
But the Long March rocket is so massive — up to 18 tonnes — that is it unlikely to burn up entirely.
“Given the size of the object, there will necessarily be big pieces left over,” said Florent Delefie, an astronomer at the Paris-PSL Observatory.
“If the rocket is composed of materials that don’t separate on re-entry, it’s even riskier,” he added. “That would appear to be the case for the Long March 5B.”