An out-of-control rocket will soon crash; US flights in potential danger


The FlightAware flight tracking website shows the noon ET position of aircraft over North America and adjacent Pacific ocean waters. Each aircraft icon marks an aircraft in flight; the airports and their airport codes are highlighted on the map. Image: FlightAware.com

An out-of-control spent rocket launched by China in recent days is returning to Earth and what’s left of it is now predicted by Aerospace Corporation to hit the planet somewhere between Alaska, Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States; if Aerospace Corporation is a few seconds behind its forecast, the rocket, traveling at speeds of around 15,000 mph, could also hit the west coast of North America. According to the latest forecasts, dozens of planes traveling with thousands of passengers to or from the United States risk being damaged or destroyed if they encounter debris from the out-of-control rocket during the re-entry process. An analysis of the skies around the Pacific now shows several flights to/from Hawaii and North America, flights to/from Los Angeles and San Francisco, flights to/from ‘Anchorage, Alaska, flights to/from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and high-rise aircraft passing over the area to/from distant destinations.

Aerospace Corporation is one of the few entities located in the world to follow this massive rocket as it falls back to Earth. The Long March 5b is huge: it weighs about 20 tons and is the height of a ten-storey building. Fortunately, according to Aerospace Corporation, not everything will survive reentry.

“The general rule of thumb is that 20-40% of a large object’s mass will hit the ground, but the exact number depends on the design of the object,” wrote Marlon Sorgem, technical member of the Innovation Branch. from the Aerospace Corporation in an online question-and-answer session specific to this out-of-control Chinese rocket. “In this case, we would expect around five to nine metric tons. Generally, for an upper stage, we see small and medium tanks surviving more or less intact, and large engine components. The large reservoirs and the skin of this central stage risk disintegrating. We will also see lightweight items such as insulation fall off. The melting point of the materials used will make a difference in what remains.

According to their latest predictions, the rocket should return to Earth somewhere in the Pacific between Alaska, Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. Since the rocket is traveling at speeds in excess of 24,000 km/h and plummeting erratically, a shift of a few seconds in the forecast would bring the crash zone closer to the west coast of North America, the central South America and even central Africa or Eastern Europe. too.

The Aerospace Corporation's final forecast shows their final forecast for the final course of the out-of-control rocket through the earth, with impact currently predicted near the orange circle or along the blue/yellow line to the left or right of the identified area.  Impact is expected to occur within an hour of 1:15 p.m. ET / 7:15 a.m. HT / 10:15 a.m. PT today.  Image: The Aerospace Company
The Aerospace Corporation’s final forecast shows their final forecast for the final course of the out-of-control rocket through the earth, with impact currently predicted near the orange circle or along the blue/yellow line to the left or right of the identified area. Impact is expected to occur within an hour of 1:15 p.m. ET / 7:15 a.m. HT / 10:15 a.m. PT today. Image: The Aerospace Company

It is the third time in as many years that China has launched a massive rocket into space with no intention of returning it safely to Earth. Despite international condemnation of the last out-of-control Chinese rocket that hit Earth in May last year, which followed another similar impact in May 2020, China has not used any new technology or security mechanism to bring back the rocket to Earth safely, as SpaceX rockets do, or drop rockets into the South Pacific Ocean far from any land mass or shipping route, as most rocket launchers around the world do when they send satellites into space.

While this weekend will be the third time an out-of-control rocket from China has crashed into Earth in as many years, other countries have had their mishaps as well. In January this year, a Russian rocket crashed after an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Even the United States and NASA have problems from time to time too; According to the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, a woman walking through a park in Tulsa, Oklahoma was hit by debris from a NASA rocket. As she was walking through a park, she saw a ball of fire in the sky above and felt something hit her shoulder. Fortunately, the palm-sized piece of metal did not hurt her, but analysis showed the debris was part of a fuel tank from a Delta II rocket that NASA had used to launch a satellite in space.

In May 2021, NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson issued a statement on China’s then-out-of-control rocket: “Space nations must minimize the risk to people and property on Earth from space object re-entries and maximize transparency regarding these operations. . It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding its space debris. It is essential that China and all space nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of space activities.

On July 24, China launched its massive Long March 5B rocket to deliver the Wentian experiment module to China’s Tiangong space station. Unable to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) due to restrictions imposed by the United States, China has embarked on the construction of its own called “Tiangong”. Construction of the space station is expected to be completed later this year after another scheduled October launch of a Long March 5B rocket takes the Mengtian module into space. With the ISS set to be retired in the coming years, Tiangong could remain the only working space station in Earth orbit.

Hainan Island is home to several high-end resorts;  the sparsely populated island in southern China is also home to a sophisticated spaceport.  Picture: Weatherboy
Hainan Island is home to several high-end resorts; the sparsely populated island in southern China is also home to a sophisticated spaceport. Picture: Weatherboy

The Long March 5, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, roughly matches the capabilities of US rockets like the ULA Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The massive rocket that was used to orbit the GOES-R and GOES-S weather satellites was a ULA Atlas V; despite its size, it is considerably smaller and less powerful than the Long March 5. The Long March 5 core stage has approximately 7 times the mass of the Space X Falcon 9 second stage. The Long March 5b is launched from a spaceport on the island of Hainan in southeast China.

The Wenchang facility on Hainan Island allows launchers to fly over the South China Sea; previous launches blasted off from interior launch facilities, forcing spent rocket stages to fall to earth. Previous rocket stages have crashed into homes in China. In the United States, such launches take off from launch pads near water, allowing exhausted rocket stages to fall back into the ocean. Prior to such an event, NASA, in partnership with local government agencies, has defined the projected splash zone as a “no-fly” / “no-boat” zone until the debris is cleared. safely.

However, as was the case when China launched components of the space station in 2020 and 2021, it looks like the exhausted main stage of March 5 will fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled way, potentially threatening certain places on the planet with an impact. . While experts believe much of the large, exhausted rocket stage will burn out during reentry, it’s possible that parts of it, such as its massive engines, could survive reentry and impact Earth. The spent rocket stage is approximately 100 feet long by 16 feet wide. It’s about the same size as 4 school buses, parked 2 by 2.

In May 2020, the out-of-control Chinese rocket finally hit parts of West Africa.  Debris was seen on the ground near Côte d'Ivoire.  Image: The Aerospace Company
In May 2020, the out-of-control Chinese rocket finally hit parts of West Africa. Debris was seen on the ground near Côte d’Ivoire. Image: The Aerospace Company

In 2020, Aerospace Corporation followed the fall of space debris. In March 2018, Aerospace also tracked a Chinese space station in freefall. He ends up crashing into the ocean. It is too early to know precisely where and when this giant rocket or its remains will crash. Aerospace Corporation operates the only Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) dedicated exclusively to the space enterprise.

The US Space Force follows the fall of the Chinese rocket. Created in December 2019, the US Space Force has not been idle. If an entity in space or falling from space were to threaten U.S. interests, it would work in partnership with other military branches and government teams to respond to the threat.

A computer-generated image of China's Long March 5 rocket taking off from Hainan Island.  Image: Chinese People's Daily
A computer-generated image of China’s Long March 5 rocket taking off from Hainan Island. Image: Chinese People’s Daily

In the meantime, Aerospace Corporation and others will continue to monitor and predict where the impact is likely to occur. “There are a variety of ways to predict re-entry, and the models differ,” said Aerospace Corporation’s Marlon Sorge, who is a technical member of the Space Innovation Directorate during an online Q&A session. . “Predictions are very sensitive to modeling assumptions, including how we think the sun will affect Earth’s atmosphere, which affects how quickly an object falls out of orbit. We and the US Space Force use slightly different models, so we get different answers These different answers tend to fall within the uncertainties of each other, so just because they’re not the same doesn’t mean they don’t agree We are constantly refining our models and are happy with our approach to the unknown.

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