China said Friday the risk of damage from a missile falling back to Earth was “extremely small” after the US warned it could crash into an inhabited area.
Military experts in the US expect the corpse of the Long March 5B rocket, which separated from Beijing’s space station, to crash sometime on Saturday or Sunday, but warned that it would be difficult to predict where and when it will land.
But Beijing downplayed the risk of danger. “The likelihood of causing damage to aviation activities or on the ground is extremely low,” said State Department spokesman Wang Wenbin.
Most of the missile components would likely be destroyed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, he added, saying the authorities would “inform the public of the situation in good time”.
China has invested billions of dollars in space exploration to reflect its growing global stature and technological power, which has followed in the alien footsteps of the United States, Russia and Europe.
The March 5 rocket can be seen at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province in July 2020 [Zhang Gaoxiang/Xinhua via AP]
“Shoot it down”?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the U.S. military had no plans to shoot it down on Thursday as feverish speculation about the missile’s trajectory back to earth flipped on social media.
“We have the ability to do a lot of things, but we don’t intend to shoot them down,” Austin told journalists.
Hopefully, he said, the missile will land “in a place where it will not harm anyone … the ocean or something like that”.
Even if the rocket or parts of it fall from the sky without separating on re-entry, there is a good chance that it will simply splash into the ocean on a planet that is 70 percent water.
But Austin suggested that the Chinese negligently dropped the missile body from orbit, saying that those in “space” should “operate in a safe and thoughtful mode.”
The location of the rocket’s descent into Earth’s atmosphere when it falls back from space “cannot be determined for hours after its re-entry,” which is expected around May 8, the US Space Command said.
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said there was a possibility that parts of the rocket could fall over land, for example in May 2020 when parts of another Chinese Long March 5B rocket rained on Ivory Coast and damaged several buildings.
He said that potentially dangerous debris would likely escape combustion after streaking the atmosphere at supersonic speeds, but would in all likelihood fall into the sea.
Because of its current orbit, the debris trail is likely to be somewhere as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand or anywhere in between, McDowell said.
“Nation of Science”
Space is the newest theater for the great power play between China and the United States.
The launch in April of China’s first module of its Heavenly Palace space station, which houses life support devices and a living space for astronauts, was a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.
President Xi Jinping called it an important step in “building a great nation of science and technology.”
With the withdrawal of the International Space Station after 2024, China could become the only space station in Earth orbit.
Although the Chinese space agencies have said they are open to foreign cooperation, the scope of this cooperation is still unclear.
The European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China to receive training so that they can work in the Chinese space station after launch.
China also said in March it was planning to build a separate lunar space station with Russia.
The facility, which is planned either on the surface or in orbit of the moon, would house experimental research facilities and be Beijing’s largest international space cooperation project to date.
The Long March missile isn’t the first time China has lost control of a spaceship when it returns to Earth.
The Tiangong-1 space laboratory disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere in 2018, two years after it ceased operations, despite Chinese authorities denying it lost control of the ship.