A huge piece of a Chinese rocket is in an uncontrollable orbit that will ultimately see it fall down to Earth and it can theoretically land anywhere on the planet.
Despite how freighting that might sound, and to an extent it is, scientists say there’s no actual need for concern. According to a TIME report on the subject, there are some reasons for that, the most prominent being that over 70% of the Earth’s cover is water.
The other major factor is that scientists from all over the world, even the U.S. military, are working to resolve this problem. Plus, a lot of the rocket will actually burn up before ever coming down on the Earth’s surface.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell said, who spoke to TIME about this case, “what typically survives… are small components made of metals that can tolerate the extreme heat of reentry and larger ones that melt at lower temperatures, but may partly make it through due to their size.”
If that’s not sufficient to soothe your nerves, TIME reports that Space Command is following 27,000 human-made objects, like this Chinese rocket, in space at any given time with the bulk of those 27,000 objects in low-Earth orbit. Basically, you can hold your head at night without needing about that rocket will come falling through your roof.
How did all this happen? According to TIME, China launched its Long March 5B rocket on April 28 with the mission of bringing a 22-ton, the 16.6-meter core module of China’s new Tianhe space station into orbit. Typically, the first stage rocket used to launch something like this into space and orbit is not climbed high enough or quick enough to actually enter orbit.
This enables the rocket to fall back down to Earth – mostly always over water, like the Pacific Ocean in China’s case – safely and predictably. But the Long March 5B first stage rocket made it into orbit and an unsustainable orbit at that.
That unsustainable orbit means the rocket part will continue to go around the Earth, falling more and more as it does. This means where it might land will remain a puzzle until it’s coming much closer to the planet. TIME reports that U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of this rocket and that while its expected reentry point is not known, it’s expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on May 8.
The rocket stage’s orbital movement– its angle relative to the equator – is 41.5 [degrees], taking it as far north as Chicago, Rome, and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and Tasmania,” according to TIME’s report.
According to McDowell in TIME’s piece, because of the rocket’s orbital speed – 28,000 kilometers per hour or 17,500 miles per hour – miscalculating its entry by even half an hour can make a variation of 10,000 km in landing distance.
Again, to repeat, despite the unknowns encompassing this, scientists and the U.S. military say there isn’t a tremendous cause for concern due to how much of the Earth is ocean and how much of this rocket will burn up in the atmosphere.