Part of China's largest rocket, the Long March 5B, is falling uncontrollably towards Earth and is expected to crash sometime on Saturday or Sunday. It's still not known where the chunk of debris will hit, although scientists say there is a very, very slim chance it would hit in a populated area. The Aerospace Corporation in California estimates that there is a 75% chance of the rocket splashing down in the water.
The debris measures 98 feet long and weighs 20 tons, reports NBC News. It is falling in an uncontrollable orbit at 18,000 miles per hour. It was launched last month to take a piece of China's new space station into space. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Friday they expect the rocket to burn up during re-entry. "The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or activities on the ground are extremely low," he said.
Our latest prediction for CZ-5B rocket body reentry is:— The Aerospace Corporation (@AerospaceCorp) May 6, 2021
🚀09 May 2021 03:43 UTC ± 16 hours
Reentry will be along one of the ground tracks shown here. It is still too early to determine a meaningful debris footprint. Follow this page for updates: https://t.co/p2AU9zE3y2 pic.twitter.com/MgzRAOTJnk
It is true that rockets commonly fall to Earth, but scientists were concerned about this rocket's fall because they are not sure where it will fall. Since 75% of the Earth is covered by oceans, the Aerospace Corporation notes that the probability of it landing in the water is 3:4. Even if it does reach land, most land mass is uninhabited or sparsely populated. The California-based company predicts it will crash down in Sudan before noon on Saturday, but it also noted that there are variables and the confidence interval is plus or minus 16 hours.
"What makes this recently particularly noteworthy is that it will occur between 41.5 deg N and 41.5 deg S latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world's population lives," Marlon Sorge, principal engineer at the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, told the Aerospace Corporation. "However, the statistical risk to any one person of being struck by falling space debris is so low that a colleague of mine jokes that if reentry predictions put his house directly under the path, he'd go out with a camera and watch."
The U.S. Space Command is tracking the Chinese rocket, but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon does not have plans to shoot it down. "We don't have a plan to shoot the rocket down. We're hopeful that it will land in a place where it won't harm anyone, hopefully, in the ocean or—or someplace like that," Austin explained Thursday, reports Defense One. Reporters asked Austin what the U.S. would do if it became clear the rocket would threaten land, Austin reiterated that the Pentagon has "the capability to do a lot of things, but we don't have a plan to shoot it down, as we speak."
The situation with the rocket is an example of a growing problem, according to experts. As countries and now corporations launch more rockets into space, they increase the danger that one of them could come down to Earth and cause damage. They could also collide with other debris that could make it difficult for astronauts and satellites. Some have also criticized China, accusing it of being irresponsible with its space plans. Just last year, another piece of a Chinese rocket passed over Los Angeles and New York before it landed in West Africa.