This weekend is set to see out-of-control space debris from a giant Chinese rocket crash land back to Earth. Scientists have a rough idea where the falling rocket booster may land – and there’s no guarantee it will avoid inhabited parts of the world.
Although damage from a falling rocket is unlikely, they most often crash down over the ocean, there are some spectacular cases of space debris landing on, well, land. The huge parts of what is thought to be a SpaceX rocket that landed in an Australian sheep farm field earlier this month is testament to that.
The debris is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday, July 31 at approximately 12:24 am UTC, give or take 16 hours, according to the latest prediction by the Aerospace Corporation.
They say it’s too early to determine exactly where the debris will fall, but they can’t rule out the possibility it’ll hit land or even human settlement.
“Due to the uncontrolled nature of its descent, there is a non-zero probability of the surviving debris landing in a populated area—over 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the reentry’s potential debris footprint,“ Aerospace Corporation tweeted.
The booster comes from a Long March 5B rocket that blasted off on July 24 from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island in southern China. Its job was to deliver a major new module to China's Tiangong Space Station – a task that requires a beastly big rocket.
The Long March 5B is a colossal heavy-lift rocket, measuring 53.6 meters (176 feet) tall and weighing 837,500 kilograms (more than 1.8 million pounds or 922 US tons). The debris that’s expected to fall on Earth is a 10-story, 23-ton rocket booster. Much of the space junk will burn up during its journey through Earth’s atmosphere, but some is likely to reach the planet's surface.
When some rockets are launched, certain parts are abandoned in orbit or dropped back to Earth. It’s possible to return a rocket body to Earth in a controlled way, but if the parts are left in orbit, they can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way. This is, unfortunately, the option taken by the China National Space Administration for their latest rocket launch.
It’s a risky option that's been taken before. In 2020, the booster of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket fell to Earth and some large chunks of metal damaged a village on Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa. A similar event occurred in 2021 when the booster from another Long March 5B splashed into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.
Space junk falling to Earth is not as rare as you might think. Luckily, no one has ever been killed by falling space debris, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Research published earlier this month suggested there’s a 10 percent chance that uncontrolled space junk will come crashing back home and cause human casualties in the next 10 years.