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A Chinese rocket that successfully lifted off a building block of a space station is about to make an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth, and its debris could crash into a populated area, reports say.
The Long March 5B Y2 took off Thursday from Hainan Island in southern China, carrying the main module of China’s first permanent space station.
As the module separated from the launcher to continue its journey as planned, the center section of the launcher has also reached orbit and is now slowly and unpredictably heading towards Earth.
On Tuesday, the 21-ton Long March 5B was in orbit at about 28,000 kilometers per hour, or 7 kilometers per second.
In the next few days, it is expected to make one of a spacecraft’s largest uncontrolled re-entry as Earth’s atmosphere pulls it down, and could potentially land in a populated area, according to US-based SpaceNews. United States.
Jonathan McDowell, a space flight observer and astrophysicist at Harvard University, told SpaceNews that it was “unacceptable” to let the center section of the launcher go in unchecked.
“Since 1990, nothing over 10 tonnes has been deliberately left in orbit to reenter unchecked,” he said.
The Long March 5B could return at any time as far north as Beijing, Madrid and New York, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington in New Zealand, SpaceNews reported.
However, it is very likely that any debris that survives the intense heat of re-entry will fall into the larger oceans – which make up about 70% of Earth – or areas where no one lives, he added. .
The first launch of the Long March 5B in May last year also ended with an uncontrolled reentry, described as “really dangerous” by the boss of NASA.
Debris from this 18-ton central section passed over the United States and landed in the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa, but if they had entered 15 to 30 minutes earlier, the debris not destroyed by the heat of the re-entry could have landed on American soil, according to Space News.
The largest and most famous incident was the 1979 re-entry of the 76-ton Nasa Skylab, the uncontrolled reentry of which scattered debris across the Indian Ocean and Western Australia.
“This one is bigger than anything new, but not as big as Skylab and its ilk at the time,” Mr McDowell tweeted.
The “Heavenly Harmony” module that the Long March 5B launched contains accommodations for crew members of China’s Tiangong space station, which the country says could be operational by the end of next year.
China has been barred by the United States from participating in the world’s largest International Space Station, which has been in orbit for more than two decades and is also supported by Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.