China’s ‘Out of Control’ Rocket Will Impact Earth on Saturday

China's rocket re-entry on Saturday could resemble a 'small plane crash scattered over 100 miles.'
Chris Young
The Long March 5BCASS

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday, May 5, that US Space Command is tracking the Chinese Long March 5B rocket core making an uncontrolled descent towards an unknown re-entry point as it orbits over populated areas including Madrid and Beijing.

US Space Command announced earlier that it expects the core of the Long March 5B to re-enter over the Pacific Ocean on Saturday. However, they warn that the exact location of the rocket's re-entry won't be known until "within hours of the event."

Jonathan McDowell, astrophysicist at Harvard University, told The Guardian that it is likely pieces of the rocket will survive re-entry and that it will be the "equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles."

China space program's 'unacceptable' re-entry

At a press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the White House condemns the "repeated reckless behavior from China’s space program." Psaki stated that the US wants to work "with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors." 

"It’s in the shared interests of all nations to act responsibly in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities," she continued. 

The US press secretary also highlighted the US's commitment to addressing the risks of congestion "due to space debris and growing activity in space."

Jonathan McDowell, Astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University told SpaceNews he believes it is "unacceptable" that such the 21-ton space machine is approaching an uncontrolled re-entry — for safety reasons, since 1990, the US hasn't allowed anything over 10 tons to make an uncontrolled re-entry.

Last time a Chinese Long March 5 rocket made a re-entry, last May, pieces of the spacecraft reached Earth and damaged property in the Ivory Coast.

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The NASA administrator at the time, Jim Bridenstine, criticized the reentry, saying it "was really dangerous," and that it was "really fortunate [...] that it doesn’t appear to have hurt anybody."

Is there an international law regarding uncontrolled re-entries?

Though news of the uncontrolled re-entry of China's Long March 5B has been met with widespread condemnation, there is currently no international law governing uncontrolled re-entries.

As Australian National University (ANU) InSpace Mission Specialist Dr. Cassandra Steer FHEA explained in a post by ANU, "there’s no breach or violation of any international space law here. What we have is a very concerning situation that appears either to be a technical failure, to be irresponsible by design, but not unlawful."

However, in the unlikely event that the rocket does not re-enter over the ocean and pieces land over populated areas, the Outer Space Treaty and the 1972 Liability Convention state that the launching State is "absolutely liable" for any damage caused by a space object re-entering the atmosphere.

10 more Long March 5B launches before 2023

China launched the Long March 5B rocket on April 29 with the Tianhe module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS), which is expected to be operational by the end of 2022. This module will be the living quarters of the CSS, once finished.

Shortly after the April 29 launch, SpaceNews reported that the rocket had entered a temporary orbit, meaning it is set to make one of the largest uncontrolled re-entries of a space machine in history — the largest ever re-entry was made by NASA's 100-ton Skylab space station in 1979.

As a Reuters report states, the April 29 launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station. Reuters points out that The Global Times in China characterizes the concern over Long March 5B's re-entry as "western hype."

However, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell countered that the situation is "negligent" and that it "makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this."

This is a developing story so be sure to check back for updates on the Long March 5B's re-entry this week.

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