On April 29, China successfully launched a crew module for a space station that it says will be completed by the end of 2022. But the first stage of the rocket that sent that module into orbit is falling to Earth uncontrollably.
The module, Tianhe, which means “Harmony of the Heavens,” launched on a Long March 5B Y2, China’s largest rocket, on April 29. While most rockets launch in two stages, the first stage usually re-enters in a known location, or some remain in orbit eventually burning up upon re-entry (only the SpaceX Falcon first stage rockets return to Earth in a controlled landing).
However, because Long March 5B is so large, some space experts predict that some of its components may reach Earth.
“The odds are this thing will break up over the ocean,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University’s Astrophysics Center. “But there’s a chance that it will hit a populated area. And then we could be looking at some property damage, hopefully no casualties.”
For China, this is not entirely unprecedented.
“This is the second launch of this type of rocket, the Long March 5B,” McDowell said. “The first one was a year ago, and it re-entered as well and caused some damage to villages in the Ivory Coast. It strew pieces of metal over about 100 miles worth of land.”