China’s rocket: Uncontrolled, unpredictable return home

The huge, 100-foot-tall (30 meters) core of a Chinese rocket is tumbling wildly through low-Earth orbit and could make an uncontrolled reentry through the atmosphere in the coming days, according to news reports. The core belongs to a Long March 5B rocket (a version of China’s largest rocket), which successfully launched a module for China’s planned Tianhe space station into orbit on Wednesday (April 28).

Following the module’s deployment, the rocket core was expected to make maneuvers for a controlled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, according to SpaceNews — however, that didn’t happen. Ground-based radars soon detected the rocket core tumbling through orbit, oscillating between altitudes of 106 and 231 miles (170 and 372 kilometers) above Earth’s surface and traveling at more than 15,840 mph (25,490 km/h). The rocket successfully launched the Tianhe module last week, which will become the living quarters of the future Chinese Space Station (CSS) and is now one of the largest ever launches to make an uncontrolled re-entry. It is uncommon for rockets to reach the velocity necessary to reach orbit, but it is currently travelling around the world once every 90 minutes, or seven kilometres every second. It passes by just north of New York, Madrid, and Beijing, and as far south as Chile and New Zealand.