Remnants of China’s largest rocket are expected to plunge through the atmosphere within hours, but the question of where it will come down is still very much up in the air.
China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that most debris will burn on re-entry and is highly unlikely to cause any harm, after the US military said an ‘uncontrolled re-entry’ was being tracked by US Space Command.
US Space Command estimated re-entry would occur at 12.11 pm Australian time on Sunday, plus or minus one hour, while the Centre for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies updated its prediction to two hours either side of 1.02 pm AEST with the rocket re-entering over the Pacific.
Europe’s tracking body said its latest prediction for the re-entry of the Long March 5B rocket body was 139 minutes either side of 1232 AEST on Sunday.
EU Space Surveillance and Tracking said on Saturday the statistical probability of a ground impact in a populated area is “low”, but noted that the uncontrolled nature of the object made any predictions uncertain.
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said on Twitter that it was believed the United States was safe from a potential impact but recent predictions were still tracking it from Costa Rica all the way to Australia and New Zealand.
Space-Track, reporting data collected by US Space Command, estimated the debris would make reentry over the Mediterranean Basin.
Travelling at a speed of around 7.7 km per second, a difference of just one minute in the time of re-entry translates to hundreds of miles difference on the ground.
“This is difficult to predict and not an exact measurement,” Space-Track wrote on Twitter.
It is one of the largest pieces of space debris to return to Earth, with experts estimating its dry mass to be around 18 to 22 tonnes.
The Long March 5B lifted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29 with the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station. The rocket is set to be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station.
Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China.
In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.