The detached fuselage from a Chinese space mission is currently in a very fast, terminal orbit around the Earth. The rocket, a Long March 5B, was sent up as part of an ongoing collaboration between China and Russia. The two countries currently coordinate on a lunar base project that could be constructed either in orbit of the moon or on the lunar surface.
The rocket was detached after the mission reached escape velocity and broke free of the Earth’s gravitational pull. While this is standard for space missions, the size of the detached rocket concerns the people back on Earth. Since the rocket will fall back to Earth in an unguided manner, there is a possibility it could come back down overpopulated land, instead of over the ocean.
This isn’t the first time China has sent up a space mission with a Long March 5B rocket that made an unguided reentry. Roughly a year ago, the country sent a similar mission into space, and the rocket in that mission came back down primarily over the Atlantic Ocean. However, it also sprayed debris over the Ivory Coast in Africa, leaving a trail of space junk in the nation of Cote D’Ivoire.
And, indeed, large fragments of space debris fall back to Earth with something resembling regularity. Throughout the Cold War, during the Space Race, it wasn’t uncommon for satellites to crash back through the atmosphere, portions of them burning up before slamming into the ground, usually over uninhabited areas.
While most of the Earth’s surface is oceans, and even less of the planet is actually densely populated, the odds that falling space junk eventually causes some serious problems on the ground only get inevitable the more things fall from space. The Chinese Long March 5B, for instance, is more than likely to crash back down over the ocean. However, there’s a non-zero chance it could hit New York City, Beijing, or another central metropolitan area, where it could cause untold havoc.
And, even though the UN’s 1972 Liability Convention stipulates that the country that launches a craft that causes damage on the ground is liable for that damage, there’s not much a country could do if China just claimed it wasn’t responsible for the uncontrolled reentry.
Researchers are likely to take this issue more seriously as ever more space exploration missions are sent into orbit around the planet. For now, there’s no way to know where the Long March 5B rocket will touch down until it’s already hurtling back towards Earth.