A massive out-of-control Chinese rocket is about to make a violent re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and smash somewhere into its surface this weekend. While experts don’t know the precise time or exact location of where it will hit, some are asking a straightforward question: what happens if it hits your house? On average, 100-200 tons of space junk re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner every year. While most of the objects are small and harmless and do burn-up prior to reaching the Earth’s surface, large objects like this Chinese rocket can bring harm to the surface if they survive re-entry.
On July 24, China launched their massive Long March 5B rocket to deliver the Wentian experiment module to China’s Tiangong Space Station. Unable to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) due to restrictions imposed by the United States, China has embarked on building their own called “Tiangong.” Construction on the space station is due to be completed later this year after another scheduled October launch of a Long March 5B rocket brings the Mengtian module to space. With the ISS due to be retired in the coming years, Tiangong may remain as the only working space station in Earth’s orbit.
Despite international condemnation of China’s last out-of-control rocket which struck Earth in May of last year, which followed another similar impact a year earlier in May of 2020, China has not employed any new technology or safety mechanisms to steer the rocket back to Earth safely, as SpaceX rockets do, or deposit rockets in the South Pacific ocean far from any land mass or ocean shipping routes, as what most rocket launchers around the world do when sending satellites into space.
Aerospace Corporation is one of a few entities located around the world tracking this huge rocket as it tumbles back to Earth. The Long March 5b is huge: it weighs about 20 tons and has the height of a ten story building. Fortunately, according to Aerospace Corporation, not all of it will survive the re-entry to earth.
“The general rule of thumb is that 20–40% of the mass of a large object will reach the ground, but the exact number depends on the design of the object,” wrote Marlon Sorgem a technical fellow for the Space Innovation Directorate of the Aerospace Corporation in an online question and answer session specific to this out-of-control Chinese rocket. “In this case, we would expect about five to nine metric tons. Generally, for an upper stage, we see small and medium tanks survive more or less intact, and large engine components. The large tanks and the skin of this core stage are likely to come apart. We will also see lightweight items such as insulation fall out. The melting point of the materials used will make a difference in what remains.”
Upwards of 40% of the massive rocket surviving the journey through the atmosphere to impact the Earth would still create the potential for damage and even death. Debris the size of a school bus moving at the speed of a bullet could easily penetrate most structures. Even a fragment the size of a bullet could kill you. But if the rocket or what’s left of it hits your home and leaves you uninjured, experts say there are basic things you should do. The first thing is get away: the debris could be very hazardous and even trace amounts of toxic chemicals used to propel the rocket could be lingering, producing a dangerous if not lethal dose you don’t want to be part of. When you’re out of harm’s way, call 911 and notify the authorities you believe the debris that hit your house was related to the Chinese rocket.
And if a Chinese rocket damages your home, don’t expect a big pay day from China. If the rocket were to create damage in another country, there are international treaties in place that would make the launching country potentially liable for damages. That happened in 1978 when a Soviet reconnaissance satellite Kosmos 954 made an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over Canada. Debris eventually crashed into Canada’s Northwest Territories, depositing toxic waste into the soil at the crash site. Citing the the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and 1972 Space Liability Convention, the Canadian government decided to use the Liability Convention to make the U.S.S.R. pay for damages. After a period of negotiation, the Soviet Union agreed to pay Canada 6 million Canadian dollars for damage. However, it is unclear whether the full amount was ever paid.
The treaties also state that countries keep ownership of objects they launch into space, even after those objects reenter and return to earth. The country that launched the object, in this case, China, could request the return of any parts that survived reentry. It is also worth noting that the treaty says that the launching country is also internationally liable for damages. While the treaty provides that “a launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft, and liable for damage due to its faults in space,” the United States would need to negotiate on your behalf with China. Private individuals would be unable to bring China to court to pay for damages.
China has not been generous when its own debris has hit its own population. Unlike the United States which launches rockets from areas with small population and near water, China often launches rockets from inland locations or close to population centers; often, debris from those rocket launches will strike people and homes as the cargo heads to space. As an example, in October 2001, debris associated with the launch of a Ziyuan-2B spacecraft rained down on a village in Shaanxi Province. Villagers collected about 20 metal pieces from the rocket, including a 22 pound mass that struck and injured a boy believed to be around 6 years old. He survived the impact and China compensated his family for this medical expenses. But it wasn’t a huge pay-day; China only offered them the equivalent of $48 US.
With tensions with China at an all time high now, they may not be willing to compensate much for any foreign damage from its rocket, even with the international treaties in place.
While this weekend will be the third time for an out-of-control rocket from China to crash into the Earth in as many years, other countries have had mishaps too. In January of this year, a rocket from Russia crashed after an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Even the U.S. and NASA has problems every now and then too; according to the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, a woman walking through a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma was apparently hit by debris from a NASA rocket. While she was walking outside through a park, she saw a fireball in the sky above and felt something strike her shoulder. Fortunately, the palm-sized chunk of metal didn’t injure her, but analysis showed the debris was a part of a fuel tank from a Delta II rocket that NASA had used to launch a satellite into space.
In May 2021, NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson released a statement about the then-out-of-control Chinese rocket: “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris. It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”