The Chinese rocket hitting Earth this weekend poses an ‘extremely low’ risk to humans

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Another “out of control” Chinese rocket stage in orbit has one news bicycle. But for people on Earth, there is not much to worry about.

The 30-meter-high, 22-ton body of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket that launched the first part of Beijing’s new space station last week will enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime this weekend, and there is an extremely high chance that pieces of the missile will splash into the ocean, analysts say.

“Much of the Earth is covered in water, so there is almost no risk,” said Dan Oltrogge, founder of the Space Safety Coalition and top policy expert at AGI’s Commercial Space Operations Operations Center. The risk to the public is not zero, he said, “but it is a lot less” when it heads towards the oceans.

The US Space Command, which helps track down the roughly 27,000 man-made pieces of debris in orbit, is tracking the location of the Long March rocket stage, but the exact point of entry into Earth’s atmosphere can only be reached. be diagnosed within hours of the return. , He said in a statement, estimating that the missile will re-enter next Saturday, May 8.

Most nuclear missile stages do not enter orbit. They usually splash into the ocean immediately after launch after launching another smaller rocket stage into orbit. But China’s Long March 5B missile has a unique design that puts the entire first stage in low Earth orbit to deliver its payload – a 22.5 metric ton Tianhe module that will serve as living space for the China’s new space station. .

The missile body is now dead and cannot be maneuvered or controlled. It rotates diagonally around the Earth at a slope of 41.5 degrees (or tilt) from the equator. That means it covers much of the Earth, everywhere as far south as Chile and the top half of New Zealand, and as far north as New York and Madrid. But a majority of that orbit occupies international waters, indicating that the likelihood of a reentry over a populated area is slim.

“The chance that a person will be hit is quite low. It’s extremely low, let’s call it. Said Oltrogge.

There are still some legitimate concerns about space security. It is risky to launch a massive rocket stage into low Earth orbit, where traffic between satellites and space debris is greatly increased. And it’s possible that parts of the rocket will survive the fiery plunge back through Earth’s atmosphere. Pieces of a Long March 5B rocket fell from the sky over Ivory Coast in Africa last year after sending an experimental satellite into space.

“Objects come in again almost every day, and once every few months there are things that hit the ground,” Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said in an email. “But this is only the second time (after the return of the same type of missile last year) in 30 years that something like this has re-entered unchecked.”

Tiangong-1, China’s first space station prototype launched in 2011, was another massive object that re-entered uncontrolled in 2018 but largely disintegrated in the atmosphere over the South Pacific. “At the time of reentry, it was 7 tons, so it was significantly smaller than” the size of Long March 5B at the expected reentry, McDowell said. “I expect significant stretches to reach the Earth’s surface – maybe several hundred kilograms [220 lbs] fragments, ”he added.

While re-entrants are common and most objects never survive their journey through the atmosphere, they are somewhat difficult to predict, Space Force Commander General John Raymond told reporters on Thursday during an unrelated call about the digital capabilities of his military arm to track objects in space. “As we get closer, that data is refined. But the space command is following this, they’re all over it, ”he said.

In the unlikely event a fragment of the Long March stage is doing affected land – not to say that land will inevitably be populated – it could have international legal ramifications. Under the 1972 Space Liability Convention, countries are liable for the objects they launch into space. But “entering into the Liability Treaty is as much a foreign policy decision as it is a legal one,” said Chris Newman, professor of aerospace law at Northumbria University in the UK. “The ‘victim’ state can be highly dependent on the ‘liable’ state for infrastructure or investment and may not want to rock the boat.” ‘

In the meantime, in addition to China’s missile phase, there are a billion other things to worry about, such as the current climate crisis, the pandemic-induced Boba tea deficiency (if you like that), or Elon Musk’s potentially cringe worthy appearance Saturday Night Live this weekend.