An out-of-control Chinese Rocket could hit the U.S. earlier than expected according to experts tracking the large, tumbling mass of space junk. Originally thought to reach Earth on May 10, the latest forecast calls for re-entry around 10:30 pm ETon the night of Saturday, May 8. While it was also originally thought that its orbit would only pass over the eastern U.S., it now appears a large part of the United States is under possible orbital paths. Is it still too soon to know with a great deal of confidence where in the world this rocket and/or its debris field will strike.
The US Department of Defense said in a statement that US Space Command was tracking the rocket’s location in space and that the 18th Space Control Squadron in California was specifically tasked with tracking the out-of-control rocket.
“All debris can be potential threats to spaceflight safety and the space domain,” the Pentagon said.
The 18th Space Control Squadron is based at Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is due to be renamed to Vandenberg Space Force Base in the coming weeks. The squadron is tasked with providing 24/7 support to the space surveillance network, maintaining the space catalog, and managing United States Space Command’s space situational awareness sharing program to United States, foreign governments, and commercial entities.
On April 29, the Long March 5B, a variant of China’s largest rocket, launched the 22.5-metric-ton Tianhe module for a space station China is building. 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 by sometime next year, with 10 more major launches planned this year to bring components of the station to space. With the ISS due to be retired after 2024, Tiangong may remain as the only working space station in Earth’s orbit.
The Long March 5, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, roughly matches the capabilities of American rockets like the ULA Delta IV Heavy and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The massive rocket that was used to bring the GOES-R and GOES-S weather satellites to orbit was a ULA Atlas V; despite its size, it’s considerably smaller and less powerful than the Long March 5.
The Long March 5 core stage has roughly 7x the mass of the Space X Falcon 9 second stage. The second stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 failed to deorbit properly following a launch in March; it made an uncontrolled reentry over the Pacific Northwest, dropping large debris into a farm field there. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The Wenchang facility on Hainan Island allows launch vehicles to soar over the South China Sea; previous launches lifted-off from inland launch facilities, forcing used rocket stages to fall onto land. Previous rocket stages have crashed into people’s homes in China. In the United States, such launches lift-off from launchpads near water, allowing spent rocket stages to tumble back to the ocean. Prior to such an event, NASA in partnership with local government agencies, put the projected splash-down area as a “no-fly” / “no-boat” area until the debris is safely down.
However, as was the case when China launched an experimental capsule into space last year, it appears the spent Long March 5 main stage will tumble back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, potentially threatening some location on the planet with an impact. While experts believe much of the large spent rocket stage will burn-up upon re-entry, it is possible some parts of it, such as its massive motors, may survive re-entry and impact Earth. The spent rocket stage is roughly 100 feet long by 16 feet wide. This is approximately the same size as 4 school buses, parked 2 by 2.
Because there is more ocean water and uninhabited land areas than there are inhabited ones, odds favor that this out-of-control rocket will impact an uninhabited area. However, it is too soon to say with certainty if that will happen.
In last year’s incident, the out of control rocket traveled directly over Los Angeles and New York City and crashed 15 minutes later near the west coast of Africa. Debris was reported on the ground in the village of Mahounou in Cote d’Ivoire on the Ivory Coast. Had the re-entry occurred 15 minutes earlier, New York City could have seen considerable damage or loss of life from the impact of the fast-moving debris.
The Aerospace Corporation is one entity tracking the out-of-control rocket. Last year, Aerospace Corporation tracked the falling rocket, providing updates to its forecast up until impact time. In March of 2018, Aerospace also tracked a falling Chinese space station. It eventually crashed into the ocean. The Aerospace Corporation performs objective technical analyses and assessments for a variety of government, civil, and commercial customers; it is an independent, non-profit corporation operating within the space industry.
While experts await to see what will happen with this rocket, there is growing concern about another Chinese rocket. From the same launch facility as the current out-of-control rocket, China is planning to launch the Long March 7 rocket carrying the Tianzhou 2 resupply ship to their space station. This automated cargo craft will be China’s first re-supply freighter for the space station. If China doesn’t take care to control their rocket stages, they too can become out-of-control and make a random impact on Earth.