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Pentagon tracking Chinese rocket stage set to reenter Earth’s atmosphere May 8

The U.S.A. is tracking the first stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket that launched a modules for the country’s space station.

China'[s Long March 5B is currently the most powerful member of the Long March rocket family and the world's third most powerful orbital launch vehicle currently in operation, trailing the Falcon Heavy and Delta IV Heavy. Author - China News Service (Creative Commons 3.0)
China'[s Long March 5B is currently the most powerful member of the Long March rocket family and the world's third most powerful orbital launch vehicle currently in operation, trailing the Falcon Heavy and Delta IV Heavy. Author - China News Service (Creative Commons 3.0)

In a statement May 4, the U.S. Department of Defense said it was tracking the first stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket that launched the first of three modules for the country’s space station, Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony.”

Space News is reporting that in his statement, DOD spokesperson Mike Howard said that “U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is expected around May 8.”  

“Until then, the 18th Space Control Squadron will be offering daily updates to the rocket body’s location on www.space-track.org beginning May 4. We will provide additional information as it becomes available,” the statement read.

On April 28, China successfully launched the 16.6-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe core module into low Earth orbit. But there is some concern about the first stage of the Long March rocket, notes CTV News Canada.

While most space debris objects burn up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, it is the massive size of the rocket’s now-empty first stage – a 30-meter-long, 5-meter-diameter piece of metal weighing in at 22 tons – that is worrisome.

The U.S. 18th Space Control Squadron space tracking site gave their latest update tonight, placing the rocket stage in a 162 by 306-kilometer altitude orbit, down from an initial 170 by 372-kilometer orbit.

The orbital inclination of the Long March 5B’s core stage is at 41.5 degrees. This means the rocket core could reenter anywhere in an area from as far North as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand. In other words, it could reenter at any point within this area.

On a May 4 update from Aerospace Corporation, they predict reentry will occur May 9 at 12:37 a.m. Eastern (04:37 Universal time), with a margin of error of plus or minus 28 hours.

Russian space agency Roscosmos also stated May 4 that its Automated Warning System on Hazardous Situations in Outer Space (ASPOS OKP) indicated that the Long March 5B was set for an uncontrolled reentry. 

However,  Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN that the situation is “not the end of days.”

“I don’t think people should take precautions. The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis,” he said.

“We expect it to reenter sometime between the eighth and 10th of May. And in that two day period, it goes around the world 30 times. The thing is traveling at like 18,000 miles an hour. And so if you’re an hour out at guessing when it comes down, you’re 18,000 miles out in saying where.”

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