US tracks Chinese rocket’s uncontrolled re-entry from orbit

Beijing: The largest section of the rocket that launched the main module of China’s first permanent space station into orbit is expected to plunge back to Earth as early as this weekend at an unknown location.

The uncontrolled re-entry is being tracked by the US Space Command, the US military said.

Usually, discarded core, or first-stage, rockets reenter soon after lift-off, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit like this one did.

The core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, on the Long March-5B Y2 rocket is moved to its launching area in southern China’s Hainan Province last month.Credit:Xinhua/AP

China’s space agency has yet to say whether the core 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.

Basic details about the rocket stage and its trajectory are unknown because the Chinese government has yet to comment publicly on the reentry. Phone calls to the China National Space Administration weren’t answered on Wednesday, a holiday.

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

It described reports that the rocket was “out of control” and could cause damage as “Western hype”. The situation is “not worth panicking about”, it said, citing industry insiders. It said debris would likley fall in international waters.

An artists rendering of a Chinese space station module. Credit:AP

The US Defence Department expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on May 8.

Where it will hit “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” it said in a statement.

“All debris can be potential threats to spaceflight safety and the space domain,” it said, adding that the 18th Space Control Squadron in California would be offering daily updates on the rocket body’s location.

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

The Long March 5B 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.

The roughly 30-metre-long stage would be among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.

The 16.8-tonne 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 US aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

AP, Reuters

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