U.S. Military Doesn’t Know Where Chinese Space Debris Might Land

U.S. Military Doesn’t Know Where Chinese Space Debris Might Land
A Long March 5B rocket, carrying China's Tianhe space station core module, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China's Hainan province on April 29, 2021. (Photo: STR/AFP, Getty Images)

The U.S. military is tracking an enormous piece of Chinese space debris which is expected to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime around May 8, according to a press release from U.S. Space Command. But as the Pentagon points out, no one knows quite where it will land yet.

The space debris in question is formally known as a Long March 5B, the rocket that launched part of China’s Tianhe Space Station into orbit on April 28. As Space News notes, the reentry of this rocket is one of the largest uncontrolled entries in history and there are concerns it could land in an area inhabited by humans.

“U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is expected around May 8,” Space Command said in a statement. “Until then, the 18th Space Control Squadron will be offering daily updates to the rocket body’s location on Space-track.org beginning May 4.”

Space News explains that it’s highly unlikely space debris of this kind will crush someone here on Earth, but it’s still a possibility:

The high speed of the rocket body means it orbits the Earth roughly every 90 minutes and so a change of just a few minutes in reentry time results in reentry point thousands of kilometers away.

The Long March 5B core stage’s orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, and could make its reentry at any point within this area.

The most likely event will see any debris surviving the intense heat of reentry falling into the oceans or uninhabited areas, but the risk remains of damage to people or property.

And the U.S. military has assured citizens that this is one of the reasons they’re on the watch.

“The 18th SPCS at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, is tasked with providing 24/7 support to the Space Surveillance Network and tracks more than 27,000 man-made objects in space, the majority of which are in low-earth orbit,” U.S. Space Command said in a statement.

“All debris can be potential threats to spaceflight safety and the space domain, and the 18th SPCS delivers front-line space defence and warnings to the global space community.”