A 22-ton, 30-meter-high Chinese missile that was launched into space last week is now spiraling out of control. Some experts suggest that debris from her will reach Earth in the coming days.
The rocket, a heavy-lift Long March-5B, launched the core module of the new Chinese space station on April 28.
After the module was deployed in low-earth orbit, the missile’s task was done. While most space objects burn upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, the size of the rocket means that some debris is likely to penetrate and hit our planet.
US Space Command is currently tracking the missile, but it’s too early to say exactly when and where the re-entry event will take place. The current consensus is that it will take place on Monday May 10th – give or take a few days – but no one can be sure until a few hours before it happens.
While SpaceNews described the upcoming event as “one of the greatest cases of uncontrolled spacecraft re-entry and possibly of an inhabited area”, keep in mind that the chances of a piece of debris landing on you or a loved one are extremely small.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University’s Astrophysics Center, told CNN that he did not see the scenario as “the end of days,” adding that people did not need to take any special precautions.
“The risk of harm or hitting someone is pretty small – not negligible, it could happen – but the risk of it hitting you is incredibly small,” said McDowell, adding that he is not going to lose everyone sleep about it.
However, McDowell described the outcome of China’s recent launch as “real negligence,” saying it could have been avoided if the missile had been designed to ensure controlled re-entry towards the water.
At the time of writing, the spent rocket is orbiting the earth at a speed of 27,800 km / h at an altitude of 270 km – about 80 km lower than at the weekend. A number of websites track the missile’s position, including this one.
China is using its Long March 5B rocket to build its new space station in near-earth orbit. The missile now falling to Earth deployed the Tianhe core module last week. In the coming months, smaller sections – as well as astronauts – will visit the orbiting outpost.