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A Chinese rocket will crash to Earth this week. But no one knows where, yet

The Chinese Long March 5B rocket was launched in late April and successfully placed the first piece of China’s new space station into Earth’s orbit. But now the rocket is out of control

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.
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 on April 29, 2021.
Ju Zhenhua, Xinhua News Agency via AP

A Chinese rocket launched to space last week will fall back to Earth, likely this weekend, and no one really knows where it will crash, yet.

The Chinese Long March 5B rocket was launched on April 28 and successfully placed the first piece — a “22.5-metric-ton Tianhe core module” — of China’s new space station into Earth’s orbit, Space News reported.

  • Because the 30-meter by 5-meter rocket failed to fall back to Earth as planned, and is now also in orbit, it “will be dragged towards Earth by increasing collisions with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere,” reported Space News.
  • “Atmospheric fluctuations and other variables, and the high velocity of the stage (rocket), mean that accurate predictions of when and where the stage will reenter are not possible until a few hours before the event,” according to Space News.

U.S. Space Command — the military agency that oversees the Defense Department’s space operations — said it “is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is expected around May 8.”

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, of Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics, told CNN that the Chinese rocket’s impending crash back to Earth was “not the end of days.”

  • “I don’t think people should take precautions. 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. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis,” McDowell said to CNN.
  • “Although it might,” McDowell said on Twitter.