Astronomers Can’t Tell Where China’s 109 Feet Tall Rocket Will Fall On Earth

Orbital debris as captured by NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center.

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The China Manned Space Agency's (CMSA) latest rocket launch that placed the first of two experiment modules for China's Tiangong space station is now headed back to Earth. China launched the module on its Long March 5B heavy lift rocket earlier this week, and after the module was successfully placed into orbit, the first stage of the rocket will soon reenter the Earth's atmosphere. This phase has once again sent astronomers, the U.S. Space Force ad other observers scurrying to their desks in order to determine when and where the rocket will land with most estimates remaining confident that the remains of the 109 feet tall first stage should avoid populated areas and land in the water.

China's Long March 5B First Stage Estimated To Reenter Earth's Atmosphere In A Couple Of Hours

The mechanics of a rocket launch involve several phases and steps, each of which must be successfully executed if an object is to be placed in space. Most modern day rockets are made up of two parts, with the first (or lower) stage responsible for providing the initial 'kick' of thrust to the second (or upper) stage which has the payload destined for the stars.

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These two stages separate during flight and depending on the payload destination and the rocket's power, the first stage either falls back to Earth or enters into orbit itself. The latter happens when the first stage reaches what is referred to as 'orbital velocity', and sometimes, the rocket can enter this phase without accounting for the debris falling back to Earth after it reenters the atmosphere.

This appears to be the case with the recent Long March 5B as well, as the rocket is currently orbiting the Earth and gradually being pulled back in by the force of gravity.

The core stage of the Long March 5B. Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

According to estimates provided by The Aerospace Corporation, the first stage will reenter the atmosphere at around 17:24 UTC today and it is possible for the entry to happen at the Western coast of the U.S. as part of a path that extends all around the Earth to reach Bangkok, Thailand and Guangzhou, China.

Most of the path provided by the nonprofit covers the ocean, which ends up significantly reducing the risk of casualties or property damage from the rocket falling on land. However, since it weighs 22.5 metric tons, the remaining debris after the first stage has burned in the atmosphere still creates an unacceptable risk from rocket launches particularly due to the unpredictability of the reentry profile.

Since this is not the first time that a Long March 5B core stage has reentered the atmosphere, experts estimate that roughly 20% to 40% of the rocket will survive the harsh temperatures that objects face in the atmosphere. During reentry, air particles rub with entering bodies at high speeds to generate a significant amount of heat that ends up melting most materials. The previous core stage reentry saw most of the debris land in the ocean, making it difficult to accurately estimate how much of the rocket had survived reentry.

Some of the landed areas that the debris could fall on include the U.S., India, Africa, Australia, Brazil and Southeast Asia. Since space laws assign ownership of a rocket to the country that launched it, any damages resulting from a reentry are also attributed to the country of launch. Capable of generating 2.2 million pounds of thrust, the Long March 5B is one of the most powerful rockets in the world, and it is capable of servicing several orbits, including those that place spacecraft on a path to the Moon.

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