China successfully launched the first base module of its space station earlier this week. But while the Long March 5B rocket — the largest in the country’s growing fleet of launch vehicles — successfully made the drop-off, it’s now likely to hurtle uncontrollably back down through the Earth’s atmosphere, SpaceNews reports.
The rocket used four boosters and a massive core stage to get the 22.5 metric-ton module into orbit, but as the core stage’s orbit starts to decay, it will likely tumble and make an uncontrolled reentry some time in the upcoming weeks.
It wouldn’t be the first time, either. In May 2020, a Long March 5B rocket core sprayed large pieces of metal debris as it slammed into a small village on the Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa after a similarly uncontrolled reentry. Images showed massive pieces of metal recovered by locals.
At the time, spaceflight observer Jonathan McDowell claimed it was the fourth most massive uncontrolled reentry ever.
Unless it completely burns up in the atmosphere, an unlikely outcome, this latest Long March 5B core could become one of the largest pieces of debris that made such an uncontrolled reentry in history, according to SpaceNews.
The danger is obvious: it could be a disaster if the core stage were to fall on an inhabited area.
Not every core stage makes it all the way into orbit. Many are designed to reach high altitudes, deorbit themselves, and descend in pre-defined reentry zones.
Experts were initially expecting the Long March 5B core stage to deorbit itself upon reaching space. But it never made such a maneuver.
That means officials on the ground are now trying to get ahead of where the rocket will fall. It’s a near impossible task, as it circles the Earth every 90 minutes. A few minutes could mean a change in reentry point of thousands of kilometers, according to SpaceNews.
China isn’t the only country that has had pieces of rocket make uncontrolled reentries. Most recently, a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage fell from the sky, splashing into the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, nobody was hurt — but event did end up putting on an amazing light show in the night sky above Seattle.
READ MORE: Huge rocket looks set for uncontrolled reentry following Chinese space station launch [SpaceNews]
More on the space station: China Releases Video of Space Station Module Entering Orbit
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