The body of the Chinese missile will fall on Friday, and we don’t know where
A huge mass of Chinese space junk is expected to return to Earth on Friday (November 4), but no one knows exactly where or when it will land.
The debris in question is the 23-ton (21 metric tons) main stage of the Long March 5B rocket, which entered Earth orbit Monday (Oct. 31). running the third and final module For China Tiangong space station.
Since then, atmospheric resistance has been pulling the rocket body further and further. Recent observations and models suggest that Long March 5B will drop on Friday morning, but the error bars on that forecast remain large at this time.
Aerospace Corporation, for example, predicts (opens in new tab) Atmospheric reunion at 7:20 a.m. EDT (1120 GMT) on Friday, plus or minus three hours. That large window puts part of North America, nearly all of Central America, much of Africa and parts of southeastern Australia, among other areas, in the potential line of fire for falling space debris.
Related to: Latest news about China’s space program
Our latest prediction for #CZ5B missile body reassembly is: It is too early to determine a significant debris trail. Follow here for updates: https://t.co/KZZ9LgLk0k pic.twitter.com/GlnE8C0IokNovember 3, 2022
We’ve been through these troubling exercises before. March 5B’s long main stages have returned to Earth uncontrollably on all three of the vehicle’s previous launches. last in Julyafter the missile sent the Vientiane module to Tiangon.
Indeed, this is a (rather unwanted) feature of the Long March 5B. Other orbital rockets are designed so that their first stages fly into the ocean or over uninhabited land immediately after takeoff, or if SpaceXFalcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, land in one piece for powered landing and future reuse. But Long March 5B’s main stage reaches orbit and has no way to steer itself down, so it lets atmospheric drag do the work, the mess.
While most of the rocket’s body will burn up in the atmosphere on Friday, some of the stronger parts will survive the trip to the ground, posing a risk to people and infrastructure on the way back.
“A general rule of thumb is that 20-40% of the mass of a large object will reach the ground, but the exact number depends on the design of the object,” wrote The Aerospace Corporation. Long March 5B Explainer (opens in new tab). “In this case, we would expect about 5 to 9 metric tons [5.5 to 9.9 tons]”.
Space sensors using HEO Inspect have captured the #CZ5B rocket as it continues its uncontrolled return to Earth. Our space-to-space imagery and intelligence support strategic decision-making and accountability efforts by making space transparent. Powered by @Satellogic pic.twitter.com/kPZfSypFlANovember 3, 2022
Probability dictates that such debris is likely to end up in the ocean, as seas cover about 70% of the Earth’s surface. But Terra Firma has welcomed Long March 5B debris in the past. For example, rocket debris from the first Long March 5B launch in May 2020 appears to: hit the ground (opens in new tab) In a village on the Ivory Coast in West Africa.
No one was injured in that incident or any other Long March 5B accidents, as far as we know. But the fact that falling rocket bodies pose any danger, however slight, has drawn condemnation from exploration advocates and others in the spaceflight community.
“Space-homing nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth from the return of space objects and maximize transparency about these operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. written in the statement (opens in new tab) posted in May 2021, shortly before the crash of Long March 5B.
“It is clear that China is not meeting responsible standards for its space debris,” he added. “It is important that China and all space-faring nations and commercial organizations act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Outside (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall: (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).
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