An out-of-control Chinese rocket is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere between 1:00 and 5:00 UTC Sunday, but experts do not know where debris from the craft will land or exactly when it will happen.
Aerospace Corp. and Space-Track.org are following the rocket as it descends.
Space-Track.org estimated Saturday evening that the rocket would reenter the atmosphere over the North Atlantic at 02:04 UTC (10:04 p.m. EDT), give or take one hour. Aerospace Corp. put it at 03:02 UTC 11:02 p.m. EDT), give or take two hours.
Aerospace Corp. is a nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research-and-development center committed to space enterprise, according to its website. And Space-Track.org says it provides critical space situational awareness data for a worldwide space community.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday that the rocket was unlikely to cause damage.
Wang told reporters in Beijing that the rocket would mostly burn up on reentry and “the probability of this process causing harm on the ground is extremely low.”
He said China was closely following the rocket’s path toward Earth and would release any information about it in a “timely manner.”
Carried space station module
The Long March 5B rocket was launched April 29 from Hainan Island. It was carrying a module for a planned Chinese space station. After the unmanned Tianhe module separated from the rocket, the nearly 21,000-kilogram rocket should have followed a planned reentry trajectory into the ocean. Because that did not happen as planned, the rocket will now make an uncontrolled reentry, and no one knows yet precisely where the debris will land.
“U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” Lieutenant Colonel Angela Webb, of U.S. Space Command Public Affairs, told CBS News.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said that “this rocket debris” is “almost the body of the rocket, as I understand it, almost intact, coming down, and we think Space Command believes somewhere around the 8th of May.”
While the odds are good that any debris will fall into the ocean, debris from another Long March 5B rocket fell on parts of Ivory Coast in May 2020, causing damage to some buildings.
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the debris could fall as far north as New York or as far south as Wellington, New Zealand.
Speaking with reporters Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the United States had no plans to try to shoot down the rocket.
“We have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to shoot it down as we speak,” Austin said.
“We’re hopeful that it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone. Hopefully in the ocean, or someplace like that,” he added.
The launch of the Tianhe module was the first of 11 planned missions to build a Chinese space station.