A Giant Piece of Space Junk From a Chinese Rocket Is Hurtling Towards Earth – Here’s How Worried You Should Be

Perseid Meteor Shower Over Alhambra

A large piece of space debris, possibly weighing several tonnes, is currently on an uncontrolled reentry phase (that’s space speak for “out of control”), and parts of it are expected to crash down to Earth over the next few weeks.

Long March 5 Rocket

Long March 5 Y2 being transported from assembly building to 101 launch site in Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center. Credit: 篁竹水声 (CC BY 4.0)

If that isn’t worrying enough, it is impossible to predict exactly where the pieces that don’t burn up in the atmosphere might land. Given the object’s orbit, the possible landing points are anywhere in a band of latitudes “a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.”

The debris is part of the Long March 5B rocket that recently successfully launched China’s first module for its proposed space station. The incident comes roughly a year after another similar Chinese rocket fell to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean but not before it reportedly left a trail of debris in the African nation of Cote D’Ivoire.

At the time, experts noted this was one of the largest pieces of human-made debris ever to fall to Earth. We cannot say with certainty what fate awaits this latest piece of space junk.

Litter from space

Australia already holds the record in the category of “who can be hit by the biggest piece of space junk.” In 1979, the 77-tonne US space station SkyLab disintegrated over Western Australia, peppering the area around the southern coastal town of Esperance with fragments.

At the time, the event was met with excitement and a sense of lightheartedness, and many pieces were collected by space enthusiasts. Esperance shire council flippantly issued NASA with a fine for littering, and a US radio station later raised enough money to pay the debt.

Although there have been no recorded deaths or serious injuries from people being hit by space debris, that’s no reason to think it’s not dangerous. Just one year before SkyLab’s demise, a Soviet remote sensing (spy) satellite, Cosmos 954, plummeted into a barren region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, spreading radioactive debris over several hundred square kilometers.

With the Cold War at its height, the sensitivity of the nuclear technology on board Cosmos 954 led to an unfortunate delay in locating and cleaning up the wreckage, because of the distrust between the Soviet Union and the Canadian/US recovery effort.

Long March 5B Rocket Altitude

Changing altitude of the Long March 5B rocket now in uncontrolled descent back to Earth. Credit: orbit.ing-now.com

The clean-up operation took months but located only a portion of the debris. Canada billed the Soviet Union more than C$6 million, having spent millions more, but was ultimately paid only C$3 million.

Since the late 1970s, pieces of space debris have fallen to Earth regularly and are viewed with increasing concern. Of course, more than 70% of Earth is covered by oceans, and only a minuscule fraction of the remaining 30% is covered by your house. But for anyone falling foul of the extremely long odds, the consequences would be truly disastrous.

It was just a quirk of fate that Cosmos 954 did not land on Toronto or Quebec City, where the radioactive fallout would have necessitated a large-scale evacuation. In 2007, pieces of debris from a Russian satellite narrowly missed a Chilean passenger plane flying between Santiago and Auckland. As we send more objects into space, the chances of a calamitous crash-landing will only increase.

Who pays to clean up the mess, anyway?

International law sets out a compensation regime that would apply in many circumstances of damage on Earth, as well as when satellites collide in space. The 1972 Liability Convention, a UN treaty, imposes liability on “launching states” for damage caused by their space objects, which includes an absolute liability regime when they crash to Earth as debris.

In the case of the Long March 5B, this would impose potential liability on China. The treaty has only been invoked once before (for the Cosmos 954 incident) and therefore may not be regarded as a powerful disincentive. However, it is likely to come into play in the future in a more crowded space environment, and with more uncontrolled reentries. Of course, this legal framework applies only after the damage occurs.

Other international guidelines regarding debris mitigation and long-term sustainability of space activities set out voluntary standards intended to limit the probability of collisions in space, and minimize the breakup of satellites either during or after their missions.

Some satellites can be moved into a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life. While this works well for certain specific orbits at a relatively high altitude, it is impractical and hazardous to start moving the vast majority of satellites around between orbital planes. Most of the millions of pieces of space junk are destined either to orbit in an uncontrollable manner for many years or, if they are in low Earth orbit, to gradually descend towards the Earth, hopefully burning up in the atmosphere before contact with terra firma.

A globally coordinated space traffic management system will be vital to avoid collisions that would result in loss of control of satellites, leaving them to tumble helplessly in orbit or fall back to Earth.

Comprehensively tracking every satellite’s movement and functionality is even harder than it sounds, because it would inevitably require countries to be willing to share information they often currently regard as confidential matters of national security.

But, ultimately, global cooperation is essential if we are to avoid an unsustainable future for our space activities. In the meantime, don’t forget to gaze upwards every now and then — you might spot some of the most spectacular litter on the planet.

Written by Steven Freeland, Professorial Fellow, Bond University / Emeritus Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University.

Originally published on The Conversation.The Conversation

89 Comments on "A Giant Piece of Space Junk From a Chinese Rocket Is Hurtling Towards Earth – Here’s How Worried You Should Be"

  1. Jan Guus Waldorp | May 6, 2021 at 2:57 am | Reply

    Why not order countries and/or organizations to blow up rockets and stuff in space so only small debris is left that will burn in the atmosphere?

    • Bigcountryflavor | May 6, 2021 at 5:27 am | Reply

      You would have to launch explosives into space, which is a nono. Also, even if you did you would have thousands of little pieces go into a greater orbit, risking more satellites and space stations to damage.

  2. Why do we have to be told how worried to be by the media? Stop with click bait headlines.

  3. Irenechaffee | May 6, 2021 at 6:40 am | Reply

    I remember when the Skylab was falling to Earth. A friend if mine made tee shirts with a drawing of chicken little saying. The Skylab is falling the Skylab is falling!!

  4. Tom Everett | May 6, 2021 at 6:49 am | Reply

    Asking the Chinese to be responsible is like asking an ameoba to do calculus

  5. ganesh iyer | May 6, 2021 at 6:51 am | Reply

    So anything good from what’s happening now and what’s very going to happen. Let’s just enjoy. China.

  6. Because explosions send pieces in all directions, not just downwards. Including towards other satellites. At the speeds stuff orbits earth, such collisions would be catastrophic and result in the violent destruction of those satellites, causing a chain reaction as that debris collides with even more satellites. This would leave space inaccessible to us for a long, long time due to the sheer amount of intractable small space debris surrounding our planet.

  7. Robert Jackson | May 6, 2021 at 7:05 am | Reply

    “How Worried You Should Be” is not really answered.

  8. Elon Musk a don | May 6, 2021 at 8:13 am | Reply

    SpaceX did one even better than blowing it up. They bring back the rockets and they land to fly another day.

  9. The more smaller pieces of junk floating around in space the greater the chance of it damaging space missions.

  10. Countries that are responsible for A space debris should consider using EMF microwaves(Doomsday machine)
    to destroy satellites instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.
    Cyber rates may Apply.

  11. That’s your presidents pals doing whatever they feel like. Hope your happy with yourselves.

    • Ronald Klotzer | May 7, 2021 at 2:10 pm | Reply

      Must be talking about ex-resident Dump because Biden doesn’t deal with the Chinese. USA made them as powerful as they are because of Nixon opening the country.

  12. With such high intensity of ads all over the browser that I literally almost can’t read the post in peace while being afraid of misclicking the ads more than where the rocket will crash. And while scrolling down, I notice that bunch of fake misleading pieces of information links like “Free hearing aid click here”, seriously also have made me think twice to even entering dodgy sites like this again.
    Good luck selling propagandas.

  13. Drew Knightley | May 6, 2021 at 10:10 am | Reply

    Exactly just the place to nurture white supremacists. What’s not to love the race that is so phobia of being replaced and being the second best, yet they are the ones destroying environment with their giant corporations which also “spoiler alert” owned by majority white people. So fun to read all the Kens and Karen’s comments.

    • Maybe you should get out of the left right paradigm. Stop letting them feed you garbage everyday on the news. Think for yourself and stop letting the TV, news, movies and social media think for you. Stop believing everything you are fed. Unfortunately you are a typical part of the lost souls that live in this world. They deliberately divide us. Its not hard to figure out. Fake stories in the news constantly. And the masses buy them as real. Divide and conquer is what it’s called. You hate white people over fake stories. Psyops/psychological operations on the masses constantly. Once you learn what they are doing and how only few rich men control all of the media around the world and use propaganda agianst us for control you will clearly see. Stop being a sheep and hating over fakery and lies. And fake history. Do you like being controlled? Your thoughts? You are letting them

    • Maybe you should get out of the left right paradigm. Stop letting them feed you garbage everyday on the news. Think for yourself and stop letting the TV, news, movies and social media think for you. Stop believing everything you are fed. Unfortunately you are a typical part of the lost souls that live in this world. They deliberately divide us. Its not hard to figure out. Fake stories in the news constantly. And the masses buy them as real. Divide and conquer is what it’s called. You hate white people over fake stories. Psyops/psychological operations on the masses constantly. Once you learn what they are doing and how only few rich men control all of the media around the world and use propaganda agianst us for control you will clearly see. Stop being a sheep and hating over fakery and lies. And fake history. Do you like being controlled? Your thoughts? You are letting them control you

    • Drew Knightly = PRC plant | May 6, 2021 at 3:55 pm | Reply

      So fun to read the grammatically-challenged post of a Chinese PRC operative. Nice try “Drew” but you’re too quick to point to the terrible pollution of private companies while your nation’s new program spews space junk around the world. First China gives the world a super-flu and now a black eye. What great global neighbors.

    • Bill Winner | May 7, 2021 at 8:31 am | Reply

      Atta boy. Now run outside, and play with the other slant eyed freaks.

  14. I agree, Drew. Also, those posters can’t even use correct grammar when posting. “Your” instead of “you are,” for example. How predictable!

  15. Cool headline. Blocking this site from my news feed.

  16. For a reference point l watch the tv show “Debris”.

  17. The rockets never leave the earth. They cant get past the firmament. Thats why they always blast the bastards off near water. Your eyes do not decieve you. The curve is the rocket going right into the water. Its terrible how the while world has been tricked by the powers that be into thinking we live a on magic spinning marble

    • Cookoo

      • Prove me wrong… Have you ever been there to actually see the rockets go into space other than the CGI they give us?.. no you have not. You just beleive what you are fed. Space is fake. You can believe the fantasy all you want just like 99 percent of this programmed world. I choose common sense.

        • How is it, that idiots such as you consider science and tech to be a topic of interest? Surely fairy story websites would be better suited to your gullible imagination.

      • I think you’re sadly overestimating the intelligence of Cuckoos!

        • I think you are sadly underestimating how programmed you are. You have no proof whatsoever of outer space other than CGI fakery. Actually I would consider a ball earth beleiver alot more into fairy tales that a common sense stationary earth beleiver. Its laughable that you people actually think we are spinning 1000 mph through infinite nothing. Give me a break. Lmbo The world is so dam programmed and dont even know it. It’s sad. You will never be able to prove the BS NASA and all the other fake space explorers throw at you. PURE FAKERY. And the masses buy it as real. Its sickening. So thankful to be awake. Stay programmed and indoctrinated. A sheep being led to the slaughter. You think you are wise. And make little smart mouth comments. When you are a sleeper like most.

  18. RCS should be mandatory for any reentry period. Lack of use is fined.

  19. Thanks Once again China!!!
    NOT

  20. One can only hope that the junk put in orbit by the Chinese, lands in Beijing, Shanghai or wherever ,”emperor” Xi and his “committee” of the Chinese Communist party happen to be. Unfortunately, there is a phenomenally higher chance it will land on my house… Which is why the Chinese don’t care and why they do this sort of thing.
    Having lived and worked in China for 5 years, I can say for sure – they don’t give a damn where it comes down – even on their own people. If it did, they would spin the story that the people who suffer/die would be hero’s of the “great peoples of the Chinese nation”.

  21. What goes up has gotta come down!!!

  22. I performed research for NASA about 15 years ago and was told that the Space Shuttle was hit by space debris twice. A suspected paint chip put a ding in a window on the Shuttle and a small marble-sized object hit as well!

  23. William Kinnard | May 6, 2021 at 7:32 pm | Reply

    Spell check engage

  24. Covid-Farts | May 6, 2021 at 7:44 pm | Reply

    I think all the gay people should go outside when it’s predicted to land and bend over just in case it hits them, they will at least get one last thrill.

  25. Here we are again littering an area well before we even get to explore and understand it more.

  26. Am I the only one annoyed by headlines with “here’s why/how”, “you SHOULD” and “why that’s a good thing” in supposedly objective articles?

  27. Space monkey | May 7, 2021 at 7:19 am | Reply

    Most will burn up on reentry and break up into smaller pieces and spread out over 100s if not closer to a thousand miles. The media wants everyone to freak out. Lol…space junk, large chunks , including other meteorite and other orbiting and non orbiting objects are ALWAYS pounding earths atmosphere, but usually burned up to smaller pieces before it becomes an “issue” for the earthlings down below. Hope you have space junk insurance on your property! I do! Lol…

  28. SomebodyCheated | May 7, 2021 at 8:46 am | Reply

    China- “President Bribed where would you like the debri field to fall?”
    President Bribed- “C’mon man! As long as it hits FL, SC, NC, TN, MS, LA, TX, OH..we’re good. Oh, and my son wants a 10 million pre-paid US card this time. Not that cheap 100k you did last time. The Big Guy only got 10k from that exchange. Hardly worth the headache once his dumb ass left a copy of the itemized receipt on his laptop. Which, while in a crack induced haze he left at a computer repair shop”
    China- “Agreed. Less the 5k you went over on the secured deposit.”
    President Bribed- “yer a Dog Faced Pony Soldier, ya know that?”

  29. Candi Kinyon | May 7, 2021 at 8:53 am | Reply

    REPRECUTIONS sp ck…this is just the beginning!!!

  30. You cannot compromise with people who will say” You did it too”

  31. Big Papa Pump | May 7, 2021 at 1:52 pm | Reply

    Drew Knightly,
    You are a racist moron.

  32. Did they get design tips from Elon Musk?

  33. can anyone explain what the f**k i’m reading in these comments? this is some seriously whacko sh*t all around. have people really gone this insane??

    • So you are just now noticing the zombie apocalypse that has infected virtually all comment streams everywhere? We had better hope that these people behave better when they’re out in the real world, or it’s already over and we should just board up the windows and turn out the lights.

  34. Made in China products were always looked at as cheaper production items. China was blamed for the covid outbreak. And now they have a rocket that helped them to research space, as well as involuntarily involving the world in a game of shoot the arrow in the air and avoid getting hit from it. Hopefully. From this “out of control” arrow(rocket). Did they even anticipate? Or just pretty much say f**k it.

  35. I’ve never been to college, I’m nobody. Tons is not spelled “”tonnes”.
    It weighs TONS

    • Mike O'Neill | May 7, 2021 at 8:09 pm | Reply

      Incorrect. A “tonne” (also known as a metric ton) is 1,000 kg (2,204.6 lbs), whereas a “ton” is 2,000 lbs.

  36. While Elon Musk makes rockets that land and are reused he also sends hundreds of little satellites each time that f**k up the view of the night sky. Those are going to smash into something it’s inevitable one of those are going to go rogue..

  37. 2020: Covid 2021: Space debris What China has for us on 2022???

  38. Another way China is trying to ruin/kill other countries.

  39. yiqunsabi

  40. John Dounhoo | May 8, 2021 at 4:40 am | Reply

    When countries send astronauts to the space station why don’t they teach them how to clean up the space debris safety return it to the earth and as for the larger pieces make it smaller.

  41. TL;DR: Death is inevitable.

  42. The largest man made debris in history that fell back to Earth? So is this junk larger than when Skylab fell back to earth in 1979? That was a WHOLE SKYLAB!

  43. We’re in far more danger of the criminal idiot- dementia joe and the looney-left of doing something stupid to hurt our Country.

  44. Because cleaning up your mess would cost too much so leave it to the rest of the world to deal with it……

  45. It will crash in china

  46. Deal with your own problems

  47. Rita Taylor | May 8, 2021 at 11:48 am | Reply

    What about like our parks! You put the junk out there, when your through with your missions, TAKE YOUR JUNK WITH YOU. WE have fines for littering, on earth, why not SPACE as well? DesTRUCTION verses GlobAl WArming???

  48. Rednumber23 | May 8, 2021 at 12:55 pm | Reply

    Imagine if there is no rocket and this article is just for producing money? I mean, sure, it’s real. But, you pay attention to it so someone else can make money. Mass media is an evil.

  49. Very thorough and informative without any hint of sensationalism–best I have read on this topic.

  50. Its the end of the world as we know it REM i feel fine

  51. I stand to win $500.if any of it lands on My house, and another $100 if it hits between 10 & 10:15 PM est. Tomorrow night.. Wish me luck!

  52. thedudethatdoesnotabide | May 8, 2021 at 5:28 pm | Reply

    Why has no one asked the obvious question of, how is it that the atmosphere didn’t phase the thing on it’s way out, yet we think it will on its way back in?

  53. The US is far more responsible for space debris than any other country, I agree that something should be done about this, but blaming China and Russia for it all is just foolish ramblings of an uneducated moron. Hopefully the UN can work together to stop failed missions or expired satellites from falling to Earth, they could land anywhere on innocent people.

  54. If you buy lottery tickets each week and think you have a realistic possibility of winning, then you should be terrified about the falling space debris because it is about equality likely to hit you as your odds of being a lucky lottery winner.

  55. Atomic Ninja | May 8, 2021 at 11:59 pm | Reply

    When the Chinese were stealing the rocket technology, didn’t they have enough time to pilfer the reentry files as well?

  56. Atomic Ninja | May 9, 2021 at 12:01 am | Reply

    Crashing into Wuhan would be poetic.

  57. I loathe how you blame trump. Its not trumps fault he’s the one who doesn’t mess with China but your buddy bidden is the one who has been hiding in Kimjon uns pantties so don’t think he won’t do the same with China. Further more. I find your muesli attempt to blame trump shallow and pedantic

  58. Hmm If this will land in any US territories….sounds intentional???? Who knows I don’t trust China.

  59. Scott Hartman | May 9, 2021 at 10:16 am | Reply

    Is it wearing a mask?

  60. Y’all remember back when they could calculate things..well looks like the education has drop around the world! You take speed time drop rate to find where it is going to enter than calculate the new speed and fall rate to find where it lands. Its not hard to do. Just know your dang math!

  61. Why not just stop all this crap, we are never gonna live up there. If so we see fools. God already gave us a place to live, EARTH. Why don’t they spend to make this place better. Man is never satisfied with what he has.

  62. You all know nothing. You sit on here commenting on things that you have no idea what your talking about. Trying to sound all over intelligent. Your all just lambs to the slaughter. You all need a Shepard to keep you safe. Let you sheep run your own lives you’d perish quick or slaughter each other. It’s human nature. We love chaos and misery. Ask yourself do I matter? As one?

  63. John Duncan | May 9, 2021 at 8:42 pm | Reply

    It’s down. No one got hurt. Delete this crap and put on something revelennt

  64. Jonathan Sixt | May 11, 2021 at 7:30 am | Reply

    We need to ‘send in the droids’, to dismantle the rocket and reuse the material. Droids could also identify space debris, intercept, collect it, and return to earth or the space station. Trash collecting space drones are needed…

  65. TAIWAN FREE | May 11, 2021 at 9:53 am | Reply

    Leave it to china to put lives at risk, complete and utter amateurs, I guess they aren’t as intelligent. I mean when you extort and steal ideas that aren’t your own…

  66. How long is this f**king thing going to be hurtling towards earth? We’ve been hearing about it for over a week now.

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