A part of a large rocket that China launched into space last week is falling back to Earth and is expected to make a turbulent reentry into the atmosphere, inciting worry about a potential impact in an inhabited location.
The almost-100-foot-tall unmanned core of the Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket was part of China’s efforts to construct its own space station. The rocket carried the 46,000 pound Tianhe “Heavenly Harmony” Space Station module into low Earth orbit from Wenchang spaceport in China’s Hainan province on Thursday. The huge component is leftover from the mission and, according to CBS News, is orbiting the planet unpredictably every 90 minutes traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told The Guardian: “It’s potentially not good.”
“Last time they launched a Long March 5B rocket they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast,” McDowell told the outlet. “Most of it burned up, but there were these enormous pieces of metal that hit the ground. We are very lucky no one was hurt.”
Based on ground observations, SpaceNews reported that the debris was slowly and uncontrollably tumbling. It’s impossible to forecast exactly where and when the debris will land once gravity takes hold, but McDowell predicts that they will very likely land in the ocean, considering bodies of water cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface.
McDowell also said that once experts know which day the space junk will make its descent, they will be able to predict its landing time within six hours.
The Long March 5B’s launch was one of 11 upcoming missions intended to construct China’s space station, set to be fully constructed by late 2022. Expected to weigh approximately 60 tons, the Tiangong Space Station will feature a docking port and a connection site for a Chinese satellites.
On the topic of orbiting objects entering the Earth’s atmosphere, NASA launched a five-day simulation exercise to prepare for any potential asteroid impact the planet might experience in the future.