Huge Chinese missile debris may fall to Earth early next week | CNN

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The remains of the massive Chinese rocket that transported a new unit to its space station on Monday are expected to fall to Earth early next week, according to the US Space Command, which is tracking the missile’s path.

The 23-ton Long March 5B rocket carrying the Wentian Laboratory module took off from Hainan Island at 2:22 p.m. local time on Sunday, July 24, and the module successfully docked at the Chinese orbital position.

Its mission is completed, the rocket has gone in an uncontrolled direction towards the Earth’s atmosphere and it is not clear where it will land. The uncontrolled landing marks the third time the country has been accused of not properly handling space debris from the launch stage.

“It’s a 20-ton piece of metal,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of a recent study on the risk of casualties from space debris.

Byers explained that space debris poses very little danger to humans, but that larger pieces can cause damage if they land in populated areas. Because of the increase in space junk, these small opportunities are becoming more likely, Byers said, especially in the Global South, according to research published in the Nature Astronomy Journal, where rocket objects are nearly three times more likely to land at latitudes. in Jakarta, Dhaka and Lagos than those in New York, Beijing or Moscow.

“This risk can be completely avoided because technologies and mission designs are now in place that can provide controlled reentries (usually in remote areas of the ocean) rather than uncontrolled and therefore completely random reentries,” he said by email.

Holger Kraj, head of the European Space Agency’s Office of Space Debris, said international best practice is to conduct controlled reentry, targeting a distant part of the ocean, whenever the risk of casualties is extremely high.

He added that the return area of ​​the missile was geographically limited between latitudes 41 degrees south and 41 degrees north of the equator.

The US Space Command said it will track the fall of the Chinese rocket to Earth, according to its spokesperson.

Based on changing weather conditions, the exact point of entry of a rocket stage into Earth’s atmosphere “can only be determined within hours of re-entering,” the spokesperson said, but it is estimated to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on August 1.

The 18th Space Defense Squadron, part of the US Army that tracks re-entry operations, will also provide daily updates on its location.

CNN has reached out to China’s manned space agency for comment.

Space debris weighing more than 2.2 tons is typically transported to a designated location in its first orbit around the Earth, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“The point is that large objects usually are not put into orbit without an active control system,” he said.

With “no active control system, no engine that could be restarted to bring it back to Earth… it rolls into orbit and eventually burns up due to friction with the atmosphere,” McDowell He told CNN.

Last year, China came under fire for its handling of space debris after another unit launched a similar rocket. Its remains sank in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives 10 days after launch.

NASA said China failed to “meet responsible standards”.

“Space-faring nations should reduce the risks to people and property on Earth from re-entry of space objects and increase transparency regarding these operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the time.

China responded to the criticism by blaming the United States for “raising concerns” about the re-entry of the rocket and accusing American scientists and NASA of “acting against their conscience” and “anti-intellectualism”.

In 2020, a Chinese rocket core – weighing nearly 20 tons – uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, passing directly over Los Angeles and Central Park in New York City before eventually diving into the Atlantic Ocean.

Space junk, like old satellites, enters Earth’s atmosphere on a daily basis, although most of it goes unnoticed because it burns long before it hits Earth.

Only the largest space debris – such as spacecraft and missile parts – poses a very small risk to humans and infrastructure on Earth.

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