Unmonitored debris from a Chinese rocket could return to Earth as soon as Saturday, according to the Aerospace Foundation, a federally funded space research center that tracks the return of orbital debris.
China launched a new laboratory unit called Wentian for the Tiangong Space Station from Hainan Island in the South China Sea earlier this week. The missile carrying the unit, the Long March 5B, would re-enter out of control.
This is not the first time that the debris of a Chinese space program has fallen into the atmosphere with excitement.
In May 2021, the world watched anxiously as it tried to locate the remnants of a rocket of the same class carrying the primary unit of the Tiangong Space Station.
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After days of close monitoring by scientists and various agencies, including the US Space Command, the missile re-entered the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.
Now, a replica is at hand.
The rocket, China’s largest, measures nearly 175 feet and weighs 23 metric tons, according to the Aerospace Corporation. It’s too early to know exactly where it fell.
The US Space Command said in a statement that the re-entry site of the rocket last year could “only be determined within hours of its return”. A spokesperson for the agency told CNN that it is monitoring space debris from this week’s launch.
But experts stress that the risk to people in general, and to the United States, is very low.
“We estimate that only 3% of the ground path is over the United States,” said Lyle Woods, a principal at Aerospace Corporation.
In general, space agencies try to direct rocket reentry to a certain size to ensure they land somewhere that poses no threat to people, according to Marlon Sorge, director of the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital Debris and Return Studies.
Sorge told USA TODAY that if an object had a 1 in 10,000 chance of affecting an area that could hurt someone, NASA would try to control its re-entry.
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“It’s basically a low-risk thing, but it’s a lot higher than it should be. It’s 10 times higher than our thresholds,” Ted Muelhaupt, a re-entry wreck expert working with the aerospace company, told USA TODAY on Wednesday.
“But the fact that we are having this conversation; the fact that people are there tracking it…watching it…is superfluous. Even if nothing happens, people being prepared in case something happens has costs.”
NASA has reprimanded the Chinese space agency in the past for allowing an uncontrolled return.
“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding space debris,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement following the re-entry of rocket debris last year.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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