Out of Control Chinese Rocket Threatens to Scatter Debris Over Populated Area

Long March 5B launches the Tianhe space station core module on April 29, 2021. (Credit: CASC)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Until the advent of the reusable Falcon 9, most first stages of rockets fell into the ocean, on the lightly populated steppes of Kazakhstan (Russian launches from Baikonur), or crashed beside and even into rural villages, throwing up huge clouds of toxic propellants in the process (Chinese launches).

All that was before China developed a massive new rocket, Long March 5B, that places the entire first stage into orbit. The booster used to launch the Tianhe core of the country’s first permanent space station on April 29 is still up there, tumbling out of control as it moves ever closer to reentering Earth’s atmosphere over God knows where. If China tried to deorbit the thing, the attempt clearly failed.

The Aerospace Corporation is predicting the stage will reenter over the Pacific Ocean on May 9. That estimate is accurate to only plus or minus 41 hours. Given the uncertainty and the fact the booster is traveling at about 17,500 mph, it could come down pretty much anywhere.

The Aerospace Corporation’s web page does have feature that lets you see what time it will be where you live when the stage reenters. It will be a lot more useful later on when estimate for stage reentry becomes more refined.

Long March 5B is part of China’s most powerful rocket family, roughly equivalent to the Delta-IV Heavy. The booster differs from the Long March 5B in that it doesn’t use a second stage.

The rocket has the potential to spread debris over a wide area. It will most likely fall over the ocean, which is about 70 percent of the planet. But, you can never be entirely sure of these things. So keep watching the skies.

A much smaller Falcon 9 second stage reentered recently over Washington and Oregon. There were no injuries, but a helium pressure vessel was recovered intact from a farm.