Beijing says the uncontrolled return of missile debris does not pose a significant risk to anyone on Earth.
The remnants of a large Chinese missile are expected to spread through the atmosphere this weekend in an uncontrolled re-entry that Beijing says it is closely following but does not pose a significant risk to anyone on Earth.
A Long March 5B rocket blasted off Sunday to deliver a lab unit to a new Chinese space station under construction in orbit, marking the third flight of China’s most powerful rocket since it was first launched in 2020.
As during its first two flights, the rocket’s main primary stage—which is 100 feet (30 meters) long and weighs 22 tons (48,500 lb)—has already reached low orbit and is expected to retreat toward Earth once atmospheric friction. It drags it down, according to American experts.
Eventually, the rocket’s body will disintegrate as it sinks into the atmosphere but is large enough that many pieces will likely survive the fiery ingress of rain debris over an area about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) long and 70 kilometers (44 miles) wide. US independent analysts said on Wednesday.
It is impossible to determine the likely location of the debris field in advance, although experts will be able to narrow down the potential area of impact near re-entry in the coming days.
Re-entry into the latest available tracking data projects will occur at about 00:24 GMT Sunday, plus or minus 16 hours, according to Aerospace Corp, a government-funded nonprofit think tank near Los Angeles.
The risk is ‘fairly low’
The overall risk to people and property on Earth is fairly low, space analyst Ted Muelhaupt told reporters at a press briefing, given that 75 percent of Earth’s surface in the debris’s likely path is water, desert or forest.
However, there is a possibility of parts of the missile falling over a populated area, as happened in May 2020 when fragments of another Chinese Long March 5B landed in Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings in that West African country, although of no injuries. Mullhaupt said.
By contrast, he said, the United States and most other space-faring nations generally go to the extra expense to design their rockets to avoid large, uncontrolled re-entries — an inevitable largely observed since large parts of NASA’s Skylab space station fell from orbit. In 1979 it landed in Australia.
In general, the odds of someone being injured or killed this weekend from falling missile pieces range from one in 1,000 to one in 230, well above the internationally accepted injury risk threshold of one in 10,000, he told reporters.
But the risk to any individual is much lower, on the order of six chances per 10 trillion. By comparison, he said, the odds of being struck by lightning are about 80,000 times greater.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the possibility of debris causing damage to aviation or to people and property on the ground is very low. He said that most components of the missile will be destroyed upon return.
Last year, NASA and others accused China of being opaque after the Beijing government remained silent about the estimated debris path or return window for the last rocket flight from Long March in May 2021.
The wreckage from that flight ended up landing unharmed in the Indian Ocean.
A few hours after Zhao spoke on Wednesday, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) provided the approximate location of its latest rocket in a rare public statement. As of 4 p.m. (0800 GMT), the agency said the rocket was orbiting the globe in an elliptical orbit with a height of 263.2 kilometers (163.5 miles) at its furthest point and 176.6 kilometers (109.7 miles) at its closest.
The CMSA did not provide any estimated re-entry details on Wednesday.
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