An out-of-control spent rocket launched by China in recent days is racing back towards Earth and what’s left of it is now forecast by Aerospace Corporation to strike the planet somewhere between Alaska, Hawaii, and the U.S. West Coast; if Aerospace Corporation is off just a few seconds on their forecast, the rocket, moving at speeds of around 15,000 mph, could strike the west coast of North America too. With the latest forecast, dozens of airplanes traveling with thousands of passengers to or from the United States are at risk of being damaged or destroyed should they encounter debris from the out-of-control rocket through the re-entry process. A scan of the skies around the Pacific now shows several flights flying to/from Hawaii and North America, flights to/from Los Angeles and San Francisco, flights to/from Anchorage, Alaska, flights to/from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and high aircraft passing over the region to/from destinations far away.
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.”
In their last forecast, the rocket is due to return to Earth somewhere in the Pacific between Alaska, Hawaii, and the United States west coast. Because the rocket is racing at speeds greater than 15,000 mph and is tumbling erratically, being off by just a few seconds in the forecast would put the crash zone closer to the North American west coast, central South America, and even central Africa or eastern Europe too.
This is the third time in as many years China has launched a massive rocket into space with no plans to safely return it to Earth. Despite international condemnation of China’s last out-of-control rocket which struck Earth in May of last year, which followed another similar impact 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.
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.”
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.
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 Long March 5b launches from a spaceport on Hainan Island in southeastern China.
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 space station components in 2020 and 2021, 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.
In 2020, Aerospace Corporation tracked the falling space debris. In March of 2018, Aerospace also tracked a falling Chinese space station. It eventually crashing into the ocean. It is too soon to know with precision where and when this giant rocket or its remnants will crash. Aerospace Corporation operates the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.
The U.S. Space Force is tracking the falling Chinese rocket. Created in December 2019, the U.S. Space Force has been busy. If an entity in space or tumbling from space were to threaten U.S. interests, they’d work in partnership with other military branches and government teams to respond to the threat.
In the meantime, Aerospace Corporation and others will continue to track and forecast where impact is likely to occur. “There are a variety of ways to predict the reentry, and models differ,” said Aerospace Corporation’s Marlon Sorge, who is a technical fellow for Space Innovation Directorate in an online question and answer session. “The predictions are highly sensitive to the modeling assumptions including how we think the sun will affect the earth’s atmosphere which affects how quickly an object falls out of orbit. We and the U.S. Space Force use slightly different models so we get different answers. These different answers tend to fall within each other’s uncertainties, so just because they are not identical does not mean they don’t agree. We are constantly refining our models and are satisfied with our approach in the face of the unknowns.”