China discounts possibility of harm from rocket plunging toward Earth

FILE - In this April 29, 2021, file photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province. The central rocket segment that launched the 22.5-ton core of China's newest space station into orbit is due to plunge back to Earth as early as Saturday in an unknown location. (Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 29, 2021, file photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province. The central rocket segment that launched the 22.5-ton core of China's newest space station into orbit is due to plunge back to Earth as early as Saturday in an unknown location. (Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua via AP, File) (Xinhua)

BEIJING – Officials in China have said the upper stage of its Long March 5B rocket that launched the core module of its space station on April 29 will mostly burn up on re-entry, posing little threat to people and property on the ground.

The U.S. Space Command is tracking the whereabouts of the rocket -- a 23-ton piece of space debris -- but said the entry point into our atmosphere is something that no one will be able to pinpoint until hours before its entry, according to NPR. That is expected to happen sometime Saturday, at an unknown location.

The rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29.

China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbing said Chinese authorities will release information about the re-entry of the rocket in a “timely manner.”

Wang said China “pays great attention to the re-entry of the upper stage of the rocket into the atmosphere."

“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground," Wang said at a regularly scheduled briefing.

Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

China’s space agency has yet to say whether the main stage of the huge Long March 5B rocket is being controlled or will make an out-of-control descent. Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times said the stage’s “thin-skinned” aluminum-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people.

The U.S. Defense Department expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on Saturday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Wednesday briefing that the U.S. Space Command was “aware of and tracking the location” of the Chinese rocket.

The nonprofit Aerospace Corp. expects the debris to hit the Pacific near the Equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities. Its orbit covers a swath of the planet from New Zealand to Newfoundland.

The roughly 30-meter (100-foot) -long stage would be among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.

The 18-ton rocket that fell last May was the heaviest debris to fall uncontrolled since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by U.S. aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.


About the Authors: