A few days ago China launched the first module for their space station via the Long March 5B rocket. However, the rocket, after detaching from the module is now trapped in low orbit around the Earth. This has led to an alarming situation as experts believe that the rocket may soon crash to Earth as soon as this Saturday. The rocket’s current orbit makes it pass over major cities like New York and Beijing meaning that something could go very wrong.
Many counties currently have their eyes on the rocket’s path, ready to either shoot it down or hope that it falls in a place that is unpopulated. According to US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, “We’re hopeful that it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone. Hopefully in the ocean, or someplace like that”. He also criticized China for not putting in mechanisms for a planned re-entry like all other rockets nowadays. He said that there was a need to “make sure that we take those kinds of things into consideration as we plan and conduct operations”.
While the rocket is still in low orbit, it is being pulled down by the Earth’s gravity little by little. Experts believe that it will finally fall sometime on Saturday. Jason Herrin of the Earth Observatory in Singapore explained that “Drag will slow the object causing loss of altitude, bringing it down into the denser atmosphere, which in turn causes more drag and further loss of velocity and altitude”.
While China’s own media has been trying hard to downplay the fears that the rocket may crash somewhere that is inhabited, saying that it will fall somewhere in international waters. The experts all over the world are currently criticizing them for going with a simpler design instead of putting in mechanisms for a controlled re-entry.
According to Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, “Small US and European upper stages also re-enter uncontrolled (and burn up entirely) but the big US or European rockets are specially designed not to leave big stages in orbit; they are always safely disposed of on the first orbit of the flight”.
He further said that “China decided they would rather use a simpler design and hope that they get lucky with the stage re-entering uncontrolled but not hurting anyone”. A controlled re-entry means that the rocket’s crash can be influenced by the ground team using its thrusters. So the rocket can be guided to international waters.
Guess we’ll have to wait till tomorrow to see where the rocket finally crashes.