Scientists warn that a runaway rocket could hit Earth

Scientists warn that a runaway rocket could hit Earth

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Debris from a Chinese rocket is expected to fall to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry this weekend. It is a huge Chinese rocket that delivered a new module to its space station a few days ago and is expected to fall to Earth early next week, according to the US Space Command, which is tracking the rocket’s trajectory.

The 23-ton Long March 5B rocket carrying the Wentian laboratory module took off from Hainan Island at 2:22 p.m. local time on Sunday, July 24, and the module successfully docked with the Chinese orbital outpost. .

Having completed its “job”, the rocket has begun an uncontrolled descent into the Earth’s atmosphere and it is not clear where it will land. The object is one of the largest objects in decades to plunge aimlessly into the atmosphere.

“Although it will break up as it enters the atmosphere, numerous pieces – some of them quite large – will reach the surface,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of a recent study on the risk of casualties from debris. space.

From the United States Defense Office, they have been observing and monitoring the trajectory of the object, but at the moment they had no plans to shoot it down.

“We’re hopeful that it lands in a place where it doesn’t harm anyone,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. “Hopefully in the ocean, or somewhere like that.”

Experts assume that the rocket’s re-entry zone was geographically limited to latitudes 41 degrees south and 41 degrees north of the equator.

Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, said international best practice is to carry out a controlled re-entry, targeting a remote part of the ocean, whenever the risk of casualties is too high.

This risk is totally avoidable, as there are now technologies and mission designs that can provide controlled re-entries (usually in remote areas of the oceans) instead of uncontrolled and therefore totally random ones, which do not pose a risk to human life. .

It is the third time in as many years that China has allowed a rocket to descend uncontrollably after a launch. The US Space Command said it will follow the fall of the Chinese rocket back to Earth, but due to different atmospheric conditions, the exact point of entry of the rocket stage into the Earth’s atmosphere “cannot be pinpointed until hours later.” of its re-entry,” the spokesman said, but it is estimated that it will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere around August 1.

The 18th Space Defense Squadron, part of the US military that tracks reentries, will also provide daily updates on their location.

China came under fire last year for its handling of space debris after launching another module on a similar rocket. Its remains fell into the Indian Ocean, near the Maldives, 10 days after launch.

What is space debris?

Space debris encompasses any piece or remains left by humans in space and whose origin, therefore, is on Earth. This space debris can be as large as an inactive satellite, about the size of a car, or as small as a flake of paint. The real danger is the speed at which these objects move, more than 28,000 kilometers per hour, and that makes them real projectiles.

Since the beginning of the space age, tons of rockets, ships and satellites have been launched into space and, initially at least, no one foresaw what to do with them at the end of their useful life. The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that there are about 900,000 useless objects larger than one centimeter orbiting the Earth. This fact, according to the UN, endangers future missions and even ground communications.

What did they say from NASA?

NASA said China did not “meet accountability standards”.

“Space-active nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth from re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the time.

While China responded to criticism by blaming the United States for “exaggerating fears” about the rocket’s reentry and accusing US scientists and NASA of “acting against their conscience” and being “anti-intellectual.”

In 2020, the core of a Chinese rocket, weighing almost 20 tons, made an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, passing directly over Los Angeles and Central Park in New York, before finally plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.

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