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Chinese 20-ton rocket falls to Earth and can hit a populated area



Long March 5B 23-ton rocket with Wentian laboratory module.

Photo: SSC

Long March 5B 23-ton rocket with Wentian laboratory module. (Photo: CSS)

Part of a Chinese rocket falls back to Earth on an unguided descent – and scientists don’t know where it will land. According to the US Space Command, which is tracking its trajectory, the wreckage of the massive rover could reach our planet early next week.

A 23-tonne Long March 5B rocket carrying the Wentian laboratory module took off from Hainan Island on Sunday and successfully docked at China’s Tiangong orbital station on Monday.

After separation from the station, the rocket began to rotate around the Earth along an irregular trajectory, slowly losing altitude. This makes almost impossible any prediction of where it will re-enter the atmosphere or where it will land on the planet. This is the third time China’s space agency has allowed a potentially fatal uncontrolled descent.

Even if a rocket falls from the sky virtually undamaged, there is a good chance it will land in the ocean that covers 70% of the Earth’s surface. Scientists will only have an accurate idea of ​​where the engine will land a few hours after re-entry into the atmosphere.

“Unfortunately, we cannot predict when and where [o impacto]”said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who is tracking the object.

“Such a large rocket stage cannot be left in orbit to make an uncontrolled reentry; the risk to the population is small, but it is more than I am comfortable with,” the astronomer concluded.

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Named Tiangong (Sky Palace), but also known by its acronym CSS (Chinese space station), the space station is due to be fully operational by the end of the year. After Wentian this weekend, the three astronauts of the Shenzhou 14 mission who are currently on the space station will receive another laboratory module, Mengtian, initially in October. After that, the station will have the final T-shape. It will be similar in size to the former Soviet-Russian space station Mir. Their life expectancy will be at least 10 years.

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Launches by NASA, SpaceX and Russia’s Roscosmos are dropping the upper stages of their rockets using controlled re-entries. The debris is sent into the Earth’s atmosphere to ensure it decomposes in the remote uninhabited region of the Pacific Ocean.