BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Debris from a Chinese rocket is set to crash to Earth some time in the next few days, with the potential for wreckage to land across a wide swathe of the globe.
Part of a Long March 5B rocket China launched on Sunday (July 24) will make an uncontrolled re-entry around July 31, according to the Aerospace Corp, a non-profit based in El Segundo, California, that receives US funding. The possible debris field includes much of the United States, as well as Africa, Australia, Brazil, India and South-east Asia, according to Aerospace's predictions.
China is closely tracking remnants of the Long March 5B rocket launched over the weekend and will release information on the situation in a timely manner, its foreign ministry said on Wednesday, amid concerns posed to populated areas on earth.
It is an international practice to allow stages of rockets to burn upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, said ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a regular media briefing, when asked if China knows when and where the rocket debris could land.
It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special technical design and most components will be ablated and destroyed during re-entry, with a very low probability of causing harm to aviation and the ground, Mr Zhao said.
Concern over the re-entry and the impact it could have is also being dismissed by China, with state-backed media saying the warnings are just "sour grapes" from people resentful of the country's development as a space power.
"The US is running out of ways to stop China's development in the aerospace sector, so smears and defamation became the only things left for it," the Global Times newspaper reported, citing Mr Song Zhongping, a television commentator who closely follows China's space programme.
"The US and Western media deliberately exaggerate and exaggerate the 'loss-of-control' of the Chinese rocket debris and the probability of personal injury caused by the rocket debris, obviously with bad intentions," Shanghai-based news site Guancha.cn said on Tuesday.
The descent of the booster, which weighs 25.4 tonnes, would be part of what critics say is a series of uncontrolled crashes that highlights the risks of China's escalating space race with the US.
"Due to the uncontrolled nature of its descent, there is a non-zero probability of the surviving debris landing in a populated area - over 88 per cent of the world's population lives under the re-entry's potential debris footprint," Aerospace said on Tuesday.
In May 2021, pieces of another Long March rocket landed in the Indian Ocean, prompting concern that the Chinese space agency had lost control of it.
"It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris," Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said that month. "It is critical that China and all space-faring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities."
China's most recent launch, which sent a module to the nation's space station, included a booster to put the spacecraft into orbit. That booster is now "dead" and beyond the control of the Chinese space agency, said Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Centre for Astrophysics, which is operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.
"The Chinese are right that the best bet is that it will fall in the ocean," he said, although "there are plenty of populated areas" within the rocket booster's range.
More debris may fall to Earth later this year, when China will be launching another Long March rocket to the space station, Dr McDowell said.