China said on Friday that the risk of damage from a rocket hitting Earth was “extremely low” after the United States warned it could crash into an inhabited area.
Military experts in the United States expect the body of the Long March 5B rocket, which was separated from the Beijing space station, to fall sometime on Saturday or Sunday, but they cautioned that it was difficult to predict where and when it would land.
But Beijing downplayed the risk of danger. “The probability of causing damage to aviation or ground activities is extremely low,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
Most of the rocket’s components would likely be destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, he added, saying authorities “will inform the public of the situation in a timely manner.”
China has invested billions of dollars in space exploration in an effort to reflect its growing global stature and growing technological power, following in the extraterrestrial footsteps of the United States, Russia, and Europe.
As feverish speculation about the rocket’s trajectory back to Earth spread through social media, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that the US military had no plans to shoot it down.
“We have the ability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to take him down,” Austin told reporters.
Hopefully, he said, the rocket will land “in a place where it won’t harm anyone … the ocean, or somewhere like that.”
Even if the rocket or parts of it fall from the sky, without breaking upon re-entry, there is a good chance that it will simply fall into the ocean on a planet made up of 70 percent water.
But Austin suggested that the Chinese were remiss in letting the rocket body slip out of orbit, saying that those in the “space domain” should “operate in a safe and thoughtful mode.”
The location of the rocket’s descent into Earth’s atmosphere as it recedes from space “cannot be identified until within hours of its reentry,” which is predicted to occur around May 8, the US Space Command said. USA.
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said there was a possibility that pieces of the rocket would hit the ground as in May 2020, when pieces of another Chinese Long March 5B rocket rained down on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings.
He said the potentially dangerous debris would likely escape incineration after passing through the atmosphere at hypersonic speed, but would in all likelihood fall into the sea.
Based on its current orbit, the debris trail is likely to fall somewhere as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, or anywhere in between, McDowell said.
The space has become the last theater of the great power play between China and the United States.
The launch of China’s first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station in April, which houses life support equipment and a living space for astronauts, was a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space. .
President Xi Jinping called it a key step in “building a great nation of science and technology.”
With the withdrawal of the International Space Station after 2024, China could become the only space station in Earth’s orbit.
Although Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration, the extent of that cooperation is still unclear.
The European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China for training to be ready to work inside the Chinese space station once it is launched.
China also said in March that it planned to build a separate lunar space station with Russia.
The facility, planned for the surface or in orbit of the Moon, would house experimental research facilities and would be Beijing’s largest international space cooperation project to date.
The Long March rocket is not the first time that China has lost control of a spacecraft when it returns to Earth.
The Tiangong-1 space laboratory disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere in 2018, two years after it ceased operation, although Chinese authorities denied losing control of the spacecraft.