WASHINGTON, DC — A 22-ton uncontrolled section of a Chinese rocket is hurtling toward Earth and is expected to soon re-enter the atmosphere, hitting the planet’s surface as early as Saturday.
It’s the stuff doomsday movies are made of; however, there’s very little reason to fear, experts say.
“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN this week.
Still, space and defense officials across the globe are carefully tracking the 100-foot-long main stage of the Long March 5B rocket.
Why did China launch the rocket?
The rocket carrying China’s Tianhe space station core module lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province on April 29.
The space station will be China’s first to host astronauts long-term.
This process went fine; however, the trouble began when the booster — 1,600 square feet of stainless steel, titanium and other heat-resistant materials — inadvertently went into low Earth orbit.
In addition to this launch, China is planning 10 more to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.
When will the rocket hit Earth?
The U.S. Defense Department expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on Saturday, though where it will hit “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” the Pentagon said in a statement to The Associated Press earlier this week.
McDowell told CNN that he expects the rocket to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime between the eighth and 1oth of May.
Do we know where it might hit?
Yes, but if you’re looking for clarity and specifics about a possible landing site, this probably won’t help.
The European Space Agency has predicted a “risk zone” that encompasses “any portion of Earth’s surface between about 41.5N and 41.5S latitude.” This includes pretty much all of the Americas south of New York, all of Africa and Australia, parts of Asia south of Japan and Europe’s Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
It’s hard to predict where the rocket will hit mainly because of how fast it’s moving.
“The thing is traveling at like 18,000 miles an hour,” McDowell told CNN. “And so if you’re an hour out at guessing when it comes down, you’re 18,000 miles out in saying where.”
By the way, that’s roughly six times the driving distance between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United States, depending on what route you take.
The nonprofit Aerospace Corp. made a prediction anyway — the group expects the debris to hit the Pacific Ocean near the equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities roughly 8 hours before or after 12:19 a.m. Sunday Eastern time, USA Today reported.
How bad could this get?
Again, you shouldn’t lose any sleep over when and where the rocket might hit.
The Communist Party newspaper Global Times said the stage’s “thin-skinned” aluminum-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people, according to an Associated Press report.
What does hit Earth will likely plop in the ocean, which covers about 70 percent of the planet. While land makes up the rest of Earth’s surface, only a portion of those areas are inhabited, McDowell told Space.com .
McDowell also said the typical risk of an individual being hit by the falling debris is “one in many billions.”
If you’re still not comforted, you can follow updates from a variety of sources.
Has this happened before?
Junk has fallen from space fairly consistently since the Soviets sent Sputnik into space on Oct. 4, 1957, the dawn of the space age.
By 2016, more than 41,500 metric tons had been hurtled into the orbital paths of the Earth, the sun and other planets in 5,197 space events, according to the European Space Agency. During the same October 1957 to January 2016 period, more than 23,600 human-made objects have entered Earth’s atmosphere, amounting to about 33,200 metric tons of space debris.
China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Chinese officials confirmed it had lost control, USA Today reported. Three years later, the agency controlled an in-atmosphere demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2.
The largest spacecraft ever to fall at least partially uncontrolled from the sky was NASA’s 100-U.S. ton Columbia space shuttle, which killed all seven astronauts on board when it broke apart during its Feb. 1, 2003, descent back to Earth after a 16-day mission.