BEIJING — The most significant section of the rocket that launched the main module of China’s first permanent space station into orbit is expected to plunge back to Earth as early as Saturday at an unknown location.
Usually, discarded core, or first-stage, rockets reenter soon after liftoff, generally over water, and don’t go into orbit like this one did. China’s space agency has yet to say whether the core stage of the vast Long March 5Brocket is being controlled or will make an out-of-control descent. Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa. Basic details about the rocket stage’s trajectory are unknown because the Chinese government has yet to publicly comment on the reentry. Phone calls to the China National Space Administration weren’t answered on Wednesday, a holiday. However, the newspaper Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party, said the stage’s “thin-skinned” aluminum-alloy exterior will quickly burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people.
The U.S. Defense Department expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on Saturday.
Where it will hit “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday. At a Wednesday briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. Space Command was “aware of and tracking the location” of the Chinese rocket.
The nonprofit Aerospace Corp. expects the debris to hit the Pacific near the Equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities. Its orbit covers a swath of the planet from New Zealand to Newfoundland.
The Long March 5Brocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29. China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.