China's out-of-control rocket's space debris will crash into Earth this weekend

The Aerospace Corporation notes that ‘over 88 percent of the world’s population’ lives under the potential impact zone.
Chris Young
Space debris
Space debrisJaniecbros/iStock
  • China’s uncontrolled rocket core stage will come crashing to Earth.
  • Current estimates say it will crash on July 30, and its estimated crash zone includes largely populated areas.
  • China has dismissed criticism of its space practices as a smear campaign.

Debris from China’s uncontrolled Long March 5B rocket stage reentry will crash into Earth in the coming days.

China’s rocket launched a space station module on Sunday, July 24, and now the core stage is orbiting Earth. It has no means to perform a controlled reentry, meaning it will hurtle into Earth's atmosphere at a currently unknown location.

It’s unlikely the rocket will damage property or people, though it’s not completely out of the question either. “There is a small risk of property damage from a few tons of metal flying through the air at 100 mph or more,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, told IE over email.

“There’s also a very low but nonzero chance of a casualty or two,” he added.

China’s core stage will likely crash to Earth this weekend

On May 5, 2020, China launched an experimental crew capsule aboard a Long March 5B rocket. A few days later, on May 11, the core stage of the rocket ended up falling over a village in the Ivory Coast, or Côte d'Ivoire. It had passed directly over New York City a short while before its uncontrolled re-entry.

Now we’re in the same situation as before. In a tweet, the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, based in El Segundo, California, estimates that the reentry of China’s Long March 5B core stage will occur on July 30 at 23:21 UTC ± 16 hours. It says it’s too early to determine a “meaningful debris footprint”.

In their tweet, the Aerospace Corporation included a map showing the possible reentry area, which includes large parts of the U.S., Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia. In a statement, the organization noted that “over 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the reentry’s potential debris footprint.”

China has been widely criticized by the international community for its uncontrolled reentries. McDowell explained that we are witnessing the exact same situation as the last two previous years when China allowed rocket stage’s to enter orbit and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere completely uncontrolled. In May last year, another Long March 5B core stage landed in the Indian Ocean.

There’s not much the international community can do about the situation, and he explained, “except pressure China to adopt space norms.” Since 1990, the U.S. hasn't allowed anything over 10 tons to make an uncontrolled re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere for the safety of people and property on Earth.

China dismisses reentry concerns

In a predictable fashion, China has dismissed concerns over its rocket re-entry. China’s state media Global Times wrote, “the U.S. is running out of ways to stop China’s development in the aerospace sector, so smears and defamation became the only things left for it.” The country’s officials largely characterize the coverage of its uncontrolled reentries as part of a smear campaign against the country.

The criticism of China’s uncontrolled reentries likely won’t go away, however, until they are controlled. China aims to send its final space station module into orbit later this year in October, meaning we will likely face the same situation again in the coming months.

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