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An out-of-control rocket is tumbling to Earth, but you should be OK

A 22-ton, 30-meter-tall Chinese rocket that launched to space last week is currently tumbling out of control, with some experts suggesting that debris from it will hit Earth in the coming days.

The rocket, a heavy-lift Long March-5B, launched the core module of China’s new space station on April 28.

After deploying the module to near-Earth orbit, the rocket’s job was done. But while most space objects burn up when they enter Earth’s atmosphere, the rocket’s large size means that some debris is likely to make it through and strike our planet.

The U.S. Space Command is currently tracking the rocket, but it’s too early to say precisely when and where the re-entry event will happen. The current consensus is that it will occur on Monday, May 10 — give or take a couple of days — but no one can be sure until a few hours before it happens.

While SpaceNews described the upcoming event as “one of the largest instances of uncontrolled re-entry of a spacecraft and could potentially land on an inhabited area,” it’s worth keeping in mind that the chances of a piece of debris landing on you or a loved one are extremely small.

Indeed, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN that he does not consider the scenario as “the end of days,” adding that it won’t be necessary for people to take any special precautions.

“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny,” McDowell said, adding that he won’t be losing any sleep over it.

However, McDowell described the outcome of China’s recent launch as “real negligence,” saying that it could’ve been avoided if the rocket had been designed in a way to ensure a controlled re-entry that sent it toward the water.

At the time of writing, the spent rocket is orbiting Earth at a speed of around 17,000 mph (27,800 kph) at an altitude of 167 miles (270 km) — about 50 miles (80 km) lower than at the weekend. A number of websites are tracking the rocket’s position, including this one.

China is using its Long March-5B rocket to build its new space station in low-Earth orbit. The rocket now falling to Earth deployed the Tianhe core module last week, with smaller sections — as well as astronauts — set to visit the orbiting outpost in the coming months.

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Trevor Mogg
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