A second-hand Chinese rocket is currently tumbling into space, and scientists aren’t sure exactly when or where it will return to Earth – but it could be soon.
The rocket, a Long March 5B, was used to put into orbit the central module of the Chinese space station Tianhe scheduled for April 28.
The rocket released the mod but has since drifted around Earth, gradually decreasing lower and lower. It can be tracked using services such as orbit.ing-now, which indicates that it uses third-party data “believed to be reliable”.
The rocket is named 2021-035B.
Even so, it is not possible at this time to accurately predict when the rocket will enter Earth’s atmosphere. This is because it is gradually slowed down by atmospheric drag, but the speed of this process can vary, reports SpaceNews.
Scientists will have a better idea of where the rocket will land over time, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University. The Guardian. He said the situation was “potentially bad” and “very negligent on the part of China”.
“Things over ten tonnes, we don’t drop from the sky, uncontrollably, on purpose,” he added.
Newsweek has contacted the Chinese government for comment.
The Long March 5B weighs around 20 tons and is approximately 100 feet long and 16 feet wide.
McDowell also posted a tweet, seen below, putting the rocket’s uncontrolled desorbit into the context of other uncontrolled desorbits, including NASA’s much larger de-orbit Skylab in 1979.
This is not the first time that a Long March 5B rocket has made an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The same thing happened in May of last year, when the rocket made its maiden flight on May 5 and placed a prototype crew capsule in low Earth orbit.
The rocket’s center stage was again left in an uncontrolled orbit, and six days after launch re-entered the atmosphere. Parts of this rocket would have survived the re-entry and landed in Ivory Coast, Africa.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine criticized China at the time for the uncontrolled desorbit. He said at a committee meeting: “It was apparently a successful launch until we started to get information about a reentry of a rocket body – a reentry that was really dangerous.”
Satellites and other space debris are sometimes left in orbit and eventually re-enter the atmosphere, but they usually burn and never make it to Earth.
Larger spacecraft, such as space stations, do not always burn out completely before touching the ground. In such cases, their atmospheric reentry is usually calculated and predetermined so that they fall in an area as far away from civilization as possible.
When Russia desorbed its old Mir space station in 2001, it was predicted to fall in the South Pacific. The NASA Skylab desorbit in 1979 was not planned, and some pieces fell over southern Western Australia.