China's massive 18-tonne rocket set to crash back to Earth - where it might land

China's massive 18-tonne rocket set to crash back to Earth - where it might land

China's Long March 5B rocket body is predicted to make an uncontrolled re-entry on Saturday night or Sunday morning and experts say it is difficult to pinpoint where remnants might land.

A huge 18-tonne chunk of China's largest model of rocket is set to crash back to Earth amid fears that pieces of it could fall on populated areas.

The Long March 5B rocket body is predicted to make an uncontrolled re-entry about 190 minutes on either side of 0211 GMT on Sunday, said EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST).

The Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) at Aerospace Corporation, a US federally funded space-focused research and development centre, updated its prediction for re-entry to four hours on either side of 0330 GMT on Sunday.

Earlier, the Pentagon had predicted a re-entry of 2300 GMT on Saturday with a window of nine hours on either side.

An area near New Zealand's North Island was identified as a possible crash location, but experts have said it is too difficult to say exactly where and when the free-falling remnants of the rocket will plunge back through the atmosphere.

China has tried to downplay fears, with its Foreign Ministry insisting that most debris from the rocket will be burned up on re-entry and is highly unlikely to cause any harm.

The US military said the uncontrolled re-entry was being tracked by US Space Command, and there were no plans to shoot down debris.

EU SST said on its website that the statistical probability of a ground impact in populated areas is "low", but noted that the uncontrolled nature of the object made any predictions uncertain.

The Long March 5B - comprising one core stage and four boosters - lifted off from China's Hainan island on April 29 with the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station.

It is one of the largest space debris to re-enter Earth, at 18 tonnes.

On Friday, the Aerospace Corporation announced that its Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) said its latest "informed prediction" of the rocket body's re-entry location was given near the North Island of New Zealand.

However, it noted that re-entry was possible anywhere along paths covering large swathes of the globe.

In a blog post, the Aerospace Corporation said: "The Long March 5B re-entry is unusual because during launch, the first stage of the rocket reached orbital velocity instead of falling downrange as is common practice.

"The empty rocket body is now in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled re-entry."

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell previously told Reuters there is a chance that pieces of the rocket could come down over land, perhaps in a populated area.

In May 2020, pieces from the first Long March 5B rained down on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings, though no injuries were reported.

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China.

In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.

The latest Long March rocket launched on April 29 was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May last year.

The empty core stage has been losing altitude since last week, but the speed of its orbital decay remains uncertain due to unpredictable atmospheric variables.

The Long March 5 family of rockets have been integral to China's near-term space ambitions - from the delivery of modules and crew of its planned space station to launches of exploratory probes to the moon and even Mars.

The core stage of the first Long March 5B that returned to Earth last year weighed nearly 20 tonnes, surpassed only by debris from the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the Soviet Union's Salyut 7 space station in 1991, and NASA's Skylab in 1979.
China's massive 18-tonne rocket set to crash back to Earth - where it might land
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