Update: An uncontrolled Chinese rocket is back from space, after reentering the Earth's atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. US Space Command said it happened at 12:45pm EDT Saturday. The Chinese Manned Space Agency said most of the rocket debris burned up over the Sulu Sea, which is between the island of Borneo and the Philippines, per the New York Times. There were no reports of debris landing in a populated area. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson scolded China on Saturday for not providing other countries with "specific trajectory information" about the rocket, citing "a significant risk of loss of life and property." Our story from Friday follows:
For the third year in a row, the world is facing a familiar hazard: a large piece of Chinese space junk making an uncontrolled reentry. As in 2020 and 2021, the space junk in question is the core stage of a Long March 5B rocket. It carried a new module to China's space station on July 24. According to the Aerospace Corporation's Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies, the 25-ton rocket body will make reentry around 3:30am Eastern on Sunday, plus or minus 7 hours, Space.com reports. As much as 10 tons of material could survive reentry, and the debris could end up scattered over an area measuring hundreds of miles in length.
The Aerospace Corporation notes "there is a non-zero probability of the surviving debris landing in a populated area—over 88% of the world's population lives under the reentry’s potential debris footprint." Analysts say the debris could hit the Earth anywhere between the 41st parallel north—the same latitude as New York City—and the 41st parallel south, which passes through New Zealand's South Island. Space debris this big is usually brought down in a controlled reentry, and experts are frustrated by China's repeated failure to avoid completely random reentries. "Things that big are normally not put in orbit without an active control system," Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics tells CNN.
Last year, the core stage came down over the Indian Ocean. In 2020, it fell into the Atlantic, just off the coast of West Africa, and there were reports of debris hitting villages in Cote D'Ivoire. "Why are we worried? Well, it did cause property damage the last time, and people are having to do preparation as a result," says Aerospace Corporation space traffic expert Ted Muelhaupt, per the Verge. "Furthermore, this is not needed. We have the technology to not have this problem." He says that while the risk of any one person being "conked on the head" by space debris is around 100 billion to one, "this doesn't mean that this is a good thing to do." (Read more space junk stories.)