WENCHANG, CHINA – MAY 05: China’s new large carrier rocket Long March-5B carrying the trial version … [+]
China News Service via Getty Images
The body of a spent Chinese rocket became the largest piece of space junk in decades to fall, uncontrolled, back towards Earth on Monday.
On May 5, a Long March 5B rocket launched a prototype crew capsule resembling a SpaceX Crew Dragon to orbit for a test. After almost a week orbiting the Earth, the core stage of the large rocket re-entered our atmosphere.
It appears that whatever bits didn’t completely burn up might have made it to the surface, likely splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa, according to the US military.
“It is the most massive object to make an uncontrolled reentry since the 39-tonne Salyut-7 in 1991,” wrote Jonathan McDowell, a prominent Harvard astrophysicist who tracks objects in orbit, on Twitter.
The military, the private Aerospace Corporation and others were tracking the 37,000 pound rocket as its orbit began to decay days ago toward an inevitable blaze of glory.
The rocket body was more massive than the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station that plummeted back to Earth (presumably landing somewhere in the ocean) in 2018. It’s about a fifth the mass of Skylab, which came back to Earth near Perth, Australia in 1979.
Most of the rocket was expected to burn up, but small pieces could have made it to the surface.
Rocket re-entries are notoriously difficult to predict, as the object is moving at thousands of miles per hour. When it breaks up, debris that makes it to the ground can be spread over hundreds or thousands of miles.
So far there have been no eyewitness reports of the rocket breaking up in the sky or of debris on the ground.
Often, larger space vehicles are equipped with means to steer the craft to re-enter over a safe location (typically the south Pacific), but that doesn’t seem to have been the case with this rocket.
The spent rocket, which was labeled CZ-5B by the agencies tracking it, orbited within about 41 degrees north and south attitude.
That means any bits that made it to the surface landed somewhere in that range, which includes New York in the north, Australia in the south and everything in between.
The updated information from the military makes it likely most of the rocket burned up or wound up in the ocean. We will see if any debris turns up onshore in West Africa.
The blue and yellow lines show the rocket’s paths above the planet.
The Aerospace Corporation
The good news is that there’s almost no reports through history of space junk injuring or killing people, as it typically falls in the ocean or remote areas, which make up much of Earth’s surface.
However, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the sky.