TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A massive, 23-ton hunk of Chinese space junk that orbited Earth for several days made a chaotic return to the home planet early Friday.
According to a report from space.com, the space junk in question comes from the core stage of a Long March 5B rocket, which reached orbit around Earth on Monday, Oct. 31 to deliver the final module for China’s Tiangong space station.
While the core stage had been orbiting Earth for the past few days, atmospheric drag had been pulling the rocket body back little by little.
At the time the media outlet said models and observations suggested the rocket body would make its final return Friday morning, but the error bars, which measure how accurate — or inaccurate in this case — a reported value might be, remained large for several hours.
The Aerospace Corporation, which supports national security space programs, first predicted the rocket body could make an atmospheric reentry Friday around 7:20 a.m. EDT, plus or minus three hours.
With a cone of uncertainty that large, much of North America, nearly all of Central America, and most of Africa were in the potential line of fire for space debris impact.
However, at the time, “It is still too early to determine a meaningful debris footprint,” the corporation added.
Around 6:30 a.m. Friday, The U.S. Space Command posted a tweet confirming the rocket body had re-entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean at 4:01 a.m.
The tweet added, “For details on the uncontrolled reentry’s impact location, we once again refer you to the #PRC.”
While there was no need for panic considering much of the rocket body likely burned up upon reentry, it is possible some sturdier pieces survived the fall back all the way back to the ground, posing a risk to people and infrastructure in its way.
It’s not the first time a piece of man-made falling debris has posed a threat to the planet. It’s not even the first time a Chinese rocket part has come crashing down. All three of Long March 5B’s core stages have fallen back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, most recently in July, after the rocket transported the Wentian module to Tiangong.
While other private space companies or agencies designed their orbital rockets to return into the ocean or over unpopulated land, or, in the case of SpaceX, autonomously land for future reuse, the Long March 5B core stage reaches orbit and has no way to steer itself down so it uses atmospheric drag do the work, chaotically.