The U.S military is tracking an uncontrolled, 100 feet long and 16 feet wide Chinese rocket that is expected to plunge to earth from space today, making it the largest object to fall out of orbit in decades.
China’s Long March 5B rocket was launched May 5 from the Wenchang launch center in the southern island province of Hainan, which extends into the South China Sea. The rocket was fitted with a prototype version of China’s next-generation crew capsule.
The roughly 20-metric-ton core stage of the rocket reached an orbital height of about 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) and has since been falling back to earth. It is expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere between 12:00 UTC (8:00 a.m. ET) and 18:00 UTC on May 11, according to Dr. Jonathan McDowell, a satellite expert from Harvard-Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics.
The CZ-5B-Y1 core stage is in a 155 x 366 km orbit, and is expected to reenter around May 11. At 17.8 tonnes, it is the most massive object to make an uncontrolled reentry since the 39-tonne Salyut-7 in 1991, unless you count OV-102 Columbia in 2003.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 7, 2020
Dead satellites and old rocket stages regularly re-enter the atmosphere, but re-entering objects with masses of more than a few tons are rare.
While the reentry of space junk like old satellites and spent rocket stages is not uncommon, they are rarely more than a few tons. Given the size of the Long March 5B rocket, it is “possible” that parts of the Chinese launcher will survive reentry to land on Earth.
No recent update to the @AerospaceCorp predictions as we enter the window for reentry (now 5:30A ET – 7:30P ET).
You can track the live position and altitude of the CZ-5B rocket core stage here: https://t.co/PD3JmtsIHw
The party starts when the altitude gets close to ~100km 🛰
— Christopher Combs (@DrChrisCombs) May 11, 2020
“It’s a concern,” McDowell said on Twitter, adding that China could have avoided reentry by including a deorbit engine to maneuver the launch rocket to “a safe place on the end of the first orbit.”
“But the Chinese apparently were too cheap to do this,” he said.
This is not the first time Chinese space objects have plunged to earth in an uncontrolled manner. In 2011, the 18,000-pound Tiangong-1 prototype Chinese space station went rogue traveling at 17,000 miles per hour. Tiangong-1, which means Heavenly Palace in Chinese, was launched in September before breaking up in April 2018 and burning in the atmosphere, creating debris that hurtled uncontrollably towards Earth.
In 2016, part of a Chinese Long March 7 rocket, which is smaller than the Long March 5B core stage, was seen reentering Earth’s atmosphere over the Western United States.
China Seeks to Displace US as Leading Space Power
Over the past 20 years, China has made rapid progress in space as it looks to fulfil its ambitions to become a military, cyber, and space power.
While its space program, which is largely dominated by the military, has actively sought cooperation with space agencies in Europe and elsewhere, the United States banned much of its space cooperation with the Chinese communist regime due to concerns over national security.
In August 2019, the Trump administration warned that the Chinese communist regime has been working to displace the United States as the leading space power.
President Donald Trump re-established U.S. Space Command as the Defense Department’s 11th Unified Combatant Command on Aug. 29 in response to U.S. adversaries developing more advanced anti-satellite weapons.
“Our adversaries are weaponizing Earth’s orbits with new technology targeting American satellites that are critical to both battlefield operations and our way of life at home. Our freedom to operate in space is also essential to detecting and destroying any missile launched against the United States,” President Donald Trump warned during the Rose Garden ceremony on Aug. 29, 2019.
According to a 2019 space threat assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, analysts believe that China has conducted a number of kinetic physical tests, including that of a DN-3 ASAT (anti-satellite weapon) missile capable of reaching higher orbits, which was tested in October 2015, December 2016, August 2017, and February 2018.
The country continues to invest heavily in its own state-run space programs and is becoming one of the largest investors in private companies, while president Xi Jinping “has emphasized the importance of science and technology (S&T) innovation, both for rejuvenating China and modernizing China’s military.”
Over the next two years, China has plans to send four crewed space missions and the same number of cargo craft to complete work on a permanent space station. Further launches of the new Long March 5B rocket—and uncontrolled reentries—are expected as China plans to send modules of the future space station into orbit. China, alongside the United States and the United Arab Emirates, has also said it is planning missions to Mars this summer.
But according to Richard Fisher, an expert on the Chinese military at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre, a Washington-based think-tank that does security research for the U.S. government, the Chinese Communist Party’s motivation behind its space program will always be to sustain the regime, and “eventually displace the United States from its position of global leadership.”