Pentagon Says No Need for Alarm Over Falling Rocket

NEW YORK -
A Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China’s Hainan Province. (Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua via AP, File)

The Pentagon is tracking a Chinese rocket that is falling towards Earth closely, but without alarm. There is a significant amount of debris from satellites and rockets hovering above Earth’s atmosphere, and it is not uncommon for  the debris to crash into Earth, but they pose little threat to personal safety.

Most pieces are small and burn up in the heat and speed of reentry, but some larger debris can fall and potentially hit populated areas, CNN reported.

Last year, a nearly 20 ton empty core stage from a Chinese rocket passed over Los Angeles before falling into the Atlantic Ocean.

Overall space agencies do their best to avoid leaving large objects in orbit that could potentially risk becoming uncontrolled space debris.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, noted there are expectations but no international treaties or law banning leaving what is essentially trash hovering above the planet.

“There’s no international law or rule — nothing specific — but the practice of countries around the world has been: ‘Yeah, for the bigger rockets, let’s not leave our trash in orbit in this way,'” he said.

The 9,000 tons of space junk is comprised of spent rocket boosters left by astronauts, dead satellites and decommissioned military anti-satellites weaponry. While it rarely poses risks to people, the debris can interfere with the roughly 4,000 of active satellites in orbit that people rely on for weather tracking and providing telecom access. It also posses a risk to the International Space Station, and the astronauts living there had to pilot it out of the way of space debris multiple times over the past years.

The Chinese Long March 5B rocket is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere “around May 8,” according to a statement from the Defense Department. The U.S. Space Command is tracking the rocket’s trajectory, but cannot pinpoint where it might land yet, but it is likely to fall into the ocean.

“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,” said McDowell. “And so if you’re an hour out at guessing when it comes down, you’re 18,000 miles out in saying where.”

The Defense Department said that the military is not considering using a military strike to break up the rocket debris into smaller pieces as it enters the atmosphere, something it has previously demonstrated.

The risk the rocket poses is currently minimal.

“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,” McDowell said. “And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis. There are much bigger things to worry about,” he concluded.

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smarcus@hamodia.com