The Pentagon has said it is tracking a large Chinese rocket that is out of control and set to reenter Earth’s atmosphere this weekend, raising concerns about where its debris may make impact.
The Chinese Long March 5B rocket is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere “around May 8,” according to a statement from Defense Department spokesperson Mike Howard, who said the US Space Command is tracking the rocket’s trajectory.
The rocket’s “exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere” can’t be pinpointed until within hours of reentry, Howard said, but the 18th Space Control Squadron will provide daily updates on the rocket’s location through the Space Track website.
The rocket was used by the Chinese to launch part of their space station last week. While most space debris objects burn up in the atmosphere, the rocket’s size — 22 tons — has prompted concern that large parts could reenter and cause damage if they hit inhabited areas.
But Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN that the situation is “not the end of days.”
“I don’t think people should take precautions. 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,” he said.
“There are much bigger things to worry about.”
McDowell explained that pinpointing where debris could be headed is almost impossible at this point because of the speed the rocket is traveling — with even slight changes in circumstance drastically change the trajectory.
“We expect it to reenter sometime between the eighth and 10th of May. And in that two day period, it goes around the world 30 times. The thing is traveling at like 18,000 miles an hour. And so if you’re an hour out at guessing when it comes down, you’re 18,000 miles out in saying where.”
“And so you should not believe anyone who tells you, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard it’s coming down in this particular place,’ ” McDowell added.
“Don’t believe them at least a few hours before the reentry because we’re just not going to know in advance.”
Still, the ocean remains the safest bet for where the debris will land, he said, just because it takes up most of the Earth’s surface.
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“If you want to bet on where on Earth something’s going to land, you bet on the Pacific, because Pacific is most of the Earth. It’s that simple,” McDowell said.
Concern over the space debris comes after China launched the first module of its planned space station last Thursday morning from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island of Hainan, according to the China National Space Administration.
China’s space station won’t launch all at once; it will be assembled from several modules launching at different times. Chinese state media reports that the country’s space station will be fully operational by the end of 2022.