Chinese missile debris set to re-enter early Sunday – US research and development center

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The Long March-5B Y2 rocket with the core module of the Chinese Tianhe space station launches on April 29, 2021 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the Chinese province of Hainan. China Daily via REUTERS

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The remains of China’s largest missile, which was launched last week, are expected to fall back through the atmosphere late Saturday or early Sunday, a US federal-funded space-based research and development center said.

China’s State Department said Friday that most of the rocket’s debris will be incinerated on re-entry and most likely will not do any damage after the US military said what it called uncontrolled re-entry was being pursued by US space command.

In a tweet sent Friday night in the U.S., Aerospace Corporation said the Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) latest eight hour reentry forecast for the Long March 5B missile body was on page 0419 GMT on Sunday.

The most recent “informed forecast” from CORDS of the missile’s re-entry location was given near the North Island of New Zealand. However, it was found that re-entry was possible anywhere along routes that covered large parts of the globe.

The Long March 5B – consisting of a core stage and four boosters – started on April 29 with the unmanned Tianhe module from the Chinese island of Hainan, which contains the living quarters of a permanent Chinese space station.

The Long March 5 family of rockets has been an integral part of China’s short-term space ambitions – from delivering modules and crew members for the proposed space station to launching exploratory probes to the moon and even Mars.

The Long March, launched last week, was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May last year.

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell previously told Reuters there was a chance that rocket fragments could fall over land, possibly in a populated area, such as in May 2020 when parts of the first long March 5B rained in Ivory Coast. Damage to multiple buildings, although no injuries were reported.

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon in China. In late April, authorities in Shiyan city, Hubei province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.

“Long March 5B’s re-entry is unusual as the rocket’s first stage reached orbital velocity during launch rather than falling to the lower range as usual,” Aerospace Corporation said in a blog post.

“The empty missile body is now in an elliptical orbit around the earth, where it is being pulled in the direction of uncontrolled reentry.”

The empty core stage has been losing altitude since last week, but the rate of its decay in orbit remains uncertain due to unpredictable atmospheric variables.

At 18 tons, it is one of the largest space debris that gets back to earth.

The core phase of the first Long March 5B, which returned to Earth last year, weighed nearly 20 tons and was only surpassed by wreckage from the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, and NASA’s Skylab in 1979.

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