(CBS Newspath) — Remnants of a free-falling Chinese rocket that’s re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere are expected to rain down on the planet this weekend, perhaps as early as midnight Saturday Eastern time.
The rocket is descending from orbit in an uncontrolled re-entry. It’s currently over South America, heading out toward the Atlantic Ocean. Space engineers won’t know the exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere, or when, until a few hours before it happens. Most of the debris is expected to burn up before that.
When China’s Long March 5B rocket blasted off last week to cheers, the country proudly delivered the first module of its planned space station, called “Harmony of the Heavens.”
But back on Earth, more headache than harmony: China’s lost control of that 20-ton rocket.
“It’s coming down on its own and apparently is tumbling,”said Bill Harwood, CBS News’ space analyst at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The rocket is passing as far north as New York and Beijing and as far south as Chile and New Zealand. That means it could pretty much land, or crash, almost anywhere on the planet.
“That’s right. Anywhere between 41 degrees north latitude and 41 degrees south latitude. But what you have to remember is the world is 75 percent covered in water, right? In the land area, there’s a lot more empty land for debris to fall on than there are populated areas,” Harwood said.
As skywatchers document the falling rocket from Japan to Washington, D.C., the White House has called for “responsible space behavior” amid the risk of more space debris.
Beijing, through state media, has criticized the Pentagon of “Western hype” and “not worth panicking about.” China’s foreign ministry said, “it’s common for upper stages of rockets to burn up… reentering the atmosphere.”
While true, China’s rocket has no “upper stage,” the ability to restart its engine, to drive it down and over an ocean to break apart.
“Why the Chinese don’t put systems on their rockets to do the same thing, we’d have to ask them, and they’re not talking,” Harwood said.
In 1979, NASA’s 76-ton Skylab Space Station broke up dropping debris in western Australia. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Similarly in 2020, China’s first Long March rocket reportedly rained wreckage over western Africa, the same way the second could do this weekend someplace. But experts say, we will all probably be fine.