China’s space station rocket hurtles ‘out of control’

Module-carrying Long March 5B is like a 10-tonne bullet threatening to fall from the sky

Wenchang, we have a problem.

An “out-of-control” Chinese rocket is hurtling back to earth, sparking fears of falling debris.

The remains of the Chinese Long March 5B will enter Earth’s atmosphere in the next five days, according to a statement from the United States Defense Department.

Spokesman Mike Howard revealed the US Space Command was tracking the trajectory of part of the massive rocket that launched China’s first module for its Tianhe space station.

“It’s potentially not good,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, told the media.

The facts:

  • The Chinese Long March 5B rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 28.
  • The 30-meter high core launched the “Heavenly Harmony” unmanned module into low Earth orbit.
  • It is the main piece in the T-shaped Tianhe space station.

What happened next? “Following the module’s deployment, the empty body was expected to make maneuvers for a controlled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere [but] that didn’t happen,” SpaceNews reported

How bad is it? Ground-based radars soon detected the empty body tumbling through orbit, oscillating between altitudes of 106 and 231 miles [or] 170 and 372 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. [It was] traveling at more than 15,840 mph [or] 25,490 km/h,” LiveScience reported.

Iron Sky: “Last time they launched a Long March 5B rocket they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast. Most of it burned up, but there were these enormous pieces of metal that hit the ground. We are very lucky no one was hurt,” McDowell, of the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told The Guardian newspaper in London.

Where is it now? It is orbiting Earth around every 90 minutes at about 27,600 km/h and an altitude of more than 300 kilometers, according to websites such as

Bad science: “What’s worse is that it’s really negligent on China’s part. We don’t let things more than ten tonnes fall out of the sky uncontrolled deliberately,” McDowell said.

Good science: “We expect it to reenter sometime between the eighth and 10th of May. And in that two-day period, it goes around the world 30 times. The thing is traveling at 18,000 miles an hour. And so if you’re an hour out at guessing when it comes down, you’re 18,000 miles out in saying where,” he added.

Delve deeper: In December, China’s Chang’e-5 moon mission probe touched down in the northern region of Inner Mongolia. Onboard were moon samples collected during the 48-hour window when it landed on the lunar surface. But that was just the opening chapter. It will culminate in astronauts landing on the moon in the next decade. The Tianhe space station is part of China’s overall space plan.

China Factor comment: Latest data has shown that the rocket is passing over the Earth as far north as New York, Madrid and Beijing. It also passes as far south as Chile and New Zealand. Still, the likeliest splashdown is [in] the Pacific “because it is most of the Earth,” McDowell pointed out.