A massive Chinese rocket is expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth this week — and experts have no clue yet where its remnants will land.
The roughly 100-foot-tall core of the Long March 5B rocket launched the 22.5-ton “Heavenly Harmony” unmanned Tianhe space station module from Wenchang in Hainan province on Thursday, the Guardian reported.
Tianhe soon separated from the launcher and entered its planned initial orbit — but the core stage is likely to make an uncontrolled re-entry amid the thickening atmosphere, SpaceNews reported.
“It’s potentially not good,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told the Guardian.
“Last time they launched a Long March 5B rocket they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast,” McDowell said.
“Most of it burned up, but there were these enormous pieces of metal that hit the ground. We are very lucky no one was hurt,” he added.
On Tuesday, the core was orbiting the globe about every 90 minutes at about 17,150 mph and an altitude of about 186 miles. Since the weekend, it has dropped by almost 50 miles.
Its path can be seen on orbit.ing-now.com.
Based on its current orbit, the rocket is orbiting as far north as the Big Apple, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.
It could make its re-entry at any point within this area, but since about 71 percent of the planet is covered with water, McDowell said the most likely outcome is that the debris will fall into the sea.
He added that some of the pieces that will likely survive re-entry would be the “equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles.”
It’s expected to return to Earth on May 10 — plus or minus two days.
Since 1990 nothing heavier than 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to re-enter uncontrolled. The Long March 5B core stage is believed to be about 21 tons, the Guardian reported.
“What’s bad is that it’s really negligent on China’s part. Things more than ten tons we don’t let them fall out of the sky uncontrolled deliberately,” McDowell said.