The second major factor is that scientists from all over the world, including the U.S. military, are working to solve this dilemma. Plus, a lot of the rocket will literally burn up before ever touching down on the Earth’s surface.According to Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who spoke to TIME about this event, “what typically survives… are small components made of metals that can tolerate the extreme heat of reentry and larger ones that melt at lower temperatures, but may partly make it through due to their size.”
If that’s not enough to calm your nerves, TIME reports that Space Command is tracking 27,000 human-made objects, like this Chinese rocket, in space at any given time with the majority of those 27,000 objects in low-Earth orbit. Basically, you can rest your head at night without needing to worry too much that a rocket will come falling through your roof.
How did all of this come about, though? According to TIME, China launched its Long March 5B rocket on April 28 with the job of bringing a 22-ton, 16.6-meter core module of the country’s new Tianhe space station into orbit. Typically, the first stage rocket used to launch something like this into space and orbit is not flown high enough or fast enough to actually enter orbit.
Gorgeous Photos of Earth from Space
This allows the rocket to fall back down to Earth – almost always over water, like the Pacific Ocean in China’s case – safely and predictably. But the Long March 5B first stage rocket did go into orbit and an unsustainable orbit at that.
That unsustainable orbit means the rocket piece will continue to go around the Earth, falling more and more as it does. This means where it might land will remain a mystery until it’s much closer to the surface of the planet. TIME reports that U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the whereabouts of this rocket and that while its expected reentry point is unknown, it’s expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on May 8.“The rocket stage’s orbital inclination – its angle relative to the equator – is 41.5 [degrees], carrying it as far north as Chicago, Rome, and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and Tasmania,” according to TIME’s report.
According to McDowell in TIME’s writeup, because of the rocket’s orbital speed – 28,000 kilometers per hour or 17,500 miles per hour – miscalculating its entry by even half an hour can make a difference of 10,000 km in landing distance.
Again, to reiterate, despite the unknowns surrounding this, scientists and the U.S. military (and probably many other officials) say there isn’t a huge cause for concern due to how much of the Earth is ocean and how much of this rocket will burn up in the planet’s atmosphere.If you’re curious about successful space rocket landings that don’t involve so many unknowns, read this story about how SpaceX made its first successful rocket landing on Earth two days ago. Check out this story of how SpaceX successfully launched 60 more Starlink satellites into orbit after that and then read about how the company plans to race remote-controlled cars on the Moon this year.
Wesley LeBlanc is a freelance news writer and guide maker for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @LeBlancWes.