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Astronomers Capture Bright Image of China’s Tumbling Rocket Core

Amid growing criticism, China's foreign ministry said its rocket debris is unlikely to cause damage.

Astronomers Capture Bright Image of China’s Tumbling Rocket Core
The Long March 5B The Virtual Telescope Project

Astronomers from the Virtual Telescope Project captured a sparkling image of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket core that is tumbling towards one of the largest-ever uncontrolled re-entries, estimated to occur on Saturday, May 8.

The single, 0.5-second exposure image was taken remotely by the Virtual Telescope Project's "Elena" robotic unit. The unit impressively kept track of the rocket as it sped through the night sky at 0.3 deg/second.

"At the imaging time, the rocket stage was at about 700 km (435 miles) from our telescope, while the Sun was just a few degrees below the horizon, so the sky was incredibly bright: these conditions made the imaging quite extreme, but our robotic telescope succeeded in capturing this huge debris," Gianluca Masi, an astronomer with the Virtual Telescope Project, explained in a post.

"This is another bright success, showing the amazing capabilities of our robotic facility in tracking these objects," Masi continued.

Though the rocket appears as a speck in the image, China's Long March 5B rocket core is 98 feet (30 meters) tall. 

China's Long March 5B rocket core approaching 'out of control' re-entry

China launched the Long March 5B rocket on April 29 as the first of 11 missions aimed at taking parts of its new space station, the CSS, into orbit. The orbital space station is expected to be operational by late 2022.

Once it had released the mission's payload — the Tianhe module, which will be the living quarters of the station — the Long March 5B rocket core entered its own temporary orbit.

Shortly afterward, SpaceNews reported that the 21-ton rocket was set to make one of the largest uncontrolled re-entries of a space object in history — for reference, the largest-ever uncontrolled re-entry was made by NASA's 100-ton Skylab space station in 1979.

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In the Virtual Telescope Project post, Masi stated that the rocket is expected to re-enter the atmosphere on Saturday, May 8 at 10:34 p.m. EDT (Sunday, May 9 at 2:34 a.m. UTC), with a margin of error of approximately 21 hours.

Astronomers Capture Bright Image of China’s Tumbling Rocket Core
Long March 5B rocket launching into orbit. Source: CASS

The rocket is currently orbiting the Earth approximately once every 90 minutes. As its orbit takes it over large populated areas including Madrid and Beijing, and it could re-enter anywhere on its current orbit, China's space program has faced global criticism.

In a recent press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called for "responsible space behaviors, while Harvard University Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said the situation is "negligent" and that it "makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy."

Since 1990, the US has purposefully not allowed objects weighing more than 10 tons to make an uncontrolled re-entry.

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The current and predicted trajectory for the orbiting Long March 5B rocket — referred to as 2021-035B by the US Military — can be followed on several websites, including orbit.ing-now.com and Aerospace.

Chinese foreign ministry says rocket 'extremely' unlikely to cause harm

Responding to mounting criticism from the global community, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Friday, May 7, that most of the rocket debris would burn up on re-entry and that it is highly unlikely to cause any harm, according to Reuters.

"The probability of this process causing harm on the ground is extremely low," Wenbin said.

As per US Space Command, the most likely event is that the rocket burns up over the Pacific Ocean. However, the last time a Chinese Long March 5B rocket made an uncontrolled re-entry in May 2020, pieces did reach Earth and damaged property on the Ivory Coast.

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The Virtual Telescope Project team stated that they aim to capture the rocket core one more time, and may even capture it live "before it ends its adventure."

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