China says there is little threat of rocket causing harm as it returns to Earth

China says the upper stage of its Long March 5B rocket that launched the core module of its space station will mostly burn up on re-entry, posing little threat to people and property on the ground.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbing said Chinese authorities will release information about the re-entry of the rocket, expected over the weekend, in a “timely manner.”

Wang said China “pays great attention to the re-entry of the upper stage of the rocket into the atmosphere.”

“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground,” Wang said at a regularly scheduled briefing.

The largest section of the rocket that launched the main module of China’s first permanent space station into orbit is expected to plunge back to Earth as early as Saturday at an unknown location.

Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

China’s space agency has yet to say whether the main stage of the huge Long March 5B rocket is being controlled or will make an uncontrolled descent. Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.

The Communist Party newspaper Global Times said the stage’s “thin-skinned” aluminum-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people.

No plans to shoot down remnants: Pentagon

The U.S. Defence Department expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on Saturday.

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday there was no plan at this point to shoot down the remnants of the rocket. Speaking with reporters, Austin said the hope was the rocket would land in the ocean.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Wednesday briefing that U.S. Space Command was “aware of and tracking the location” of the Chinese rocket.

The non-profit Aerospace Corp. expects the debris to hit the Pacific near the equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities. 

The rocket’s orbit is below 41 degrees north latitude, which means Canada won’t be in harm’s way should anything manage to make it to land. (Most of Canada is above 49 degrees north latitude, with the country’s southernmost point being 42 degrees.)

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, sits at the launch pad of Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, China, on April 23. China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit. (China Daily via Reuters)

The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29. China is planning 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.

The roughly 30-metre-long stage would be among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.

The rocket that fell last May was the heaviest debris to fall uncontrolled since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by U.S. aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

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