China said on Friday the risk of damage from a rocket falling back to Earth was “extremely low” after the United States warned it could crash down on to an inhabited area.
Military experts in the US expect the body of the Long March 5B rocket, which separated from Beijing’s space station, to come down some time on Saturday or Sunday, but warned it was difficult to predict where it will land and when.
But Beijing downplayed the risk of danger. “The probability of causing harm to aviation activities or on the ground is extremely low,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Most of the rocket components would likely be destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, he added, saying authorities “will inform the public of the situation in a timely manner”.
China has poured billions of dollars into space exploration in efforts to reflect its rising global stature and growing technological might, following in the extra-terrestrial footsteps of the United States, Russia, and Europe.
‘Shoot it down’?
As fevered speculation over the rocket’s trajectory back to Earth pinballed across social media, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday said the US military had no plans to shoot it down.
“We have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to shoot it down,” Austin told journalists.
Hopefully, he said, the rocket will land “in a place where it won’t harm anyone … the ocean, or someplace like that”.
Even if the rocket or parts of it do fall from the sky, without breaking up on re-entry, there is a good chance it will just splash down into the ocean on a planet made up of 70 percent water.
But Austin suggested the Chinese were negligent in letting the rocket body fall out of orbit, saying those who were in the “space domain” should “operate in a safe and thoughtful mode”.
The location of the rocket’s descent into Earth’s atmosphere as it falls back from space “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its re-entry”, which is projected to occur around May 8, US Space Command said.
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said there was a chance that pieces of the rocket could come down over land such as in May 2020, when pieces from another Chinese Long March 5B rocket rained down on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings.
He said potentially dangerous debris would likely escape incineration after streaking through the atmosphere at hypersonic speed but in all likelihood would fall into the sea.
Based on its current orbit, the debris trail is likely to fall somewhere as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, or anywhere in between, McDowell said.
‘Nation of science’
Space has become the latest theatre for the big power play between China and the United States.
The launch of China’s first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station in April – housing life support equipment and a living space for astronauts – was a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.
President Xi Jinping called it a key step in “building a great nation of science and technology”.
With the retirement of the International Space Station after 2024, China’s could become the only space station in Earth’s orbit.
Although Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration, the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.
The European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China to receive training in order to be ready to work inside the Chinese space station once it is launched.
China also said in March it was planning to build a separate lunar space station with Russia.
The facility, planned for either the surface or in the orbit of the Moon, would house experimental research facilities and would be Beijing’s biggest international space cooperation project to date.
The Long March rocket is not the first time China has lost control of a spacecraft as it returns to Earth.
The space laboratory Tiangong-1 disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere in 2018, two years after it had stopped working, though Chinese authorities denied they had lost control of the ship.