A massive piece of Chinese space junk is expected to tumble through the atmosphere uncontrollably sometime on Saturday (May 8), according to a statement from the U.S. Space Command.
It's possible that some of the debris could land in populated areas — however, officials won't know the object's precise trajectory until "within hours of its reentry," according to the statement.
The object in question is the 100-foot-tall (30 meters) core of a Long March 5B rocket (a version of China's largest rocket), which launched a module for China's planned Tianhe space station into orbit on April 28.
Immediately after the launch, it became clear that the rocket core would not make a controlled reentry into Earth's atmosphere, as some experts expected, but was instead tumbling wildly through low-Earth orbit at roughly 15,840 mph (25,490 km/h), Live Science previously reported.
The rocket core — which the U.S. military has been tracking as object 2021-035B — is currently oscillating between the altitudes of 106 and 231 miles (170 and 372 kilometers) above Earth's surface. Much of the core will likely burn up in Earth's atmosphere during reentry, though experts expect some debris to survive and plummet to the planet's surface. Based on the rocket's current orbit, the debris could fall as far north as New York or Beijing and as far south as southern Chile or Wellington, New Zealand, Reuters reported.
Statistically, it's most likely that any debris will fall into the ocean or onto uninhabited land — however, the remains of a free-falling Long March 5B rocket have caused damage before. In May 2020, a Long March rocket slammed through the atmosphere, scattering debris into the Atlantic Ocean and onto West Africa. According to the South China Morning Post, some chunks of debris crashed into inhabited villages in Côte d'Ivoire. Fortunately, no casualties were reported.
Weighing more than 20 tons (18 metric tons), the Long March core will be one of the most massive objects to slam through our atmosphere in decades. U.S. Space Command will keep the public updated as more information about the rocket's reentry path comes to light.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.