A Chinese missile hurtling uncontrollably around the planet is likely to crash on Earth by the end of the month.
The 21-ton Long March 5B rocket stage was left as part of the Wentian space station module, which was launched Sunday and docked with the Tiangong space station.
Using data from the US Space Force’s Space Surveillance Network, Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) tracked the debris and made a prediction that it would drop on July 31st – or July 22nd at about 7:00 a.m. 30 GMT hours before or after this time.
The prediction will be updated over time, and the researchers have stressed that it’s still too early to say exactly where the rocket will fall.
“The general rule of thumb is that 20 to 40 percent of a large object’s mass reaches the ground, but the exact number depends on the object’s construction. In that case, we would expect around five to nine tons,” they wrote.
“In general, with an upper stage, we see small and medium tanks surviving more or less intact and large engine components. The large tanks and skin of this core tier will likely fall apart. We will also see how light objects like insulation fall out. The melting point of the materials used will make a difference in what is left.”
This is the third time China has uncontrolledly descended a rocket to Earth. In May last year, a rocket carrying a central part of the Tianhe Space Station’s module shot around the Earth so fast that there was no telling where it would land. The debris orbits the earth once every 90 minutes.
If the rocket had reentered the atmosphere over a populated area, the result would have been similar to a small plane crash 100 miles away. The year before, a similar prototype made it to New York City in 13 minutes.
“As the number of satellites grows rapidly, overall re-entry is likely to become more frequent as well. One of the best ways to control the growth of debris in orbit is to deorbit the satellites at the end of their lifespan. This often happens through re-entry,” says CORDS.
“In most of these cases, the satellites are small. Some are even designed so that very little mass survives to the ground. Larger objects like the CZ-5B missile body do not burn as easily. It is common practice for larger objects such as rockets to perform controlled re-entry – using their thrusters to target an isolated region of the ocean for re-entry, making the risk to humans extremely low.”