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Chinese Rocket Debris Will Fall Back to Earth, But No One Knows Where

By: Jacob Yang

Space watchers followed a 23-ton Chinese rocket to space this week because debris from the ship could fall on populated areas.

A large chunk of the rocket reentered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean 3 days ago at 4:45 am GMT, according to the US Space Command. It hit the Sulu Sea, a body of water in the Pacific Ocean between Borneo and the Philippines; however, most of it burned up in the atmosphere. Even so, scientists estimate that 10-20 thousand tons of debris could fall back to Earth.

Many scientists are sure another piece of flying debris will hit Earth, and, although it is quite unlikely, they are worried that a chunk of it will hit a largely populated area. Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, said in a rebuke on Saturday that China “did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth” and that Countries should “share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk,” especially for large objects that could result in a potential loss in life and property.

Mr. Nelson alluded to the Chinese rocket, “Long March 5B,” launched on Sunday, carrying a laboratory module used to build China’s space station which was called “Tiangong.” Normally, falling debris is not a problem for rocket ships because the boosters are dropped back to Earth once all the fuel, resulting in less material being burnt up from the friction of the atmosphere. Since China did not drop the boosters, the rocket would lose altitude, resulting in a lower orbit than usual and debris.

Forecasters and scientists narrowed the search down in the past day, stating that the debris would drop in Mexico, in the Atlantic, or of the Sulu Sea again. Sarawak, a province in Malaysia on Borneo reported sightings of the debris on fire, thinking that it was a meteor shower or comet.

This was the third flight of Long March 5B. The first one consisted of a reusable astronaut capsule with no one inside, and the boosters coming off. They landed on a village in Cote d'Ivoire, resulting in property damage but no injuries. In the second flight, Tianhe, the main module of Tiangong, was transported to the space station, and its boosters splashed in the Indian Ocean. However, this time, the core booster stage, a part of the boosters, transported the rest of the cargo onto the space station. Currently, China is planning a fourth flight of the rocket in October, to take another laboratory module to Tiangong, completing its construction.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., stated that China could use a trick NASA used with their old rockets. They could, with their low orbit, slowly bring the ship back to Earth without having to reenter the entire atmosphere, resulting in less material from the ship falling.

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