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20-Ton Chunk Of China’s Failed Rocket Missed Hitting New York By Minutes

by : Emily Brown on : 14 May 2020 07:53
20-Ton Chunk Of China's Failed Rocket Missed Hitting New York By Minutes20-Ton Chunk Of China's Failed Rocket Missed Hitting New York By MinutesPA/Pexels

A chunk of space debris weighing 20 tons crashed to Earth last week, and was mere minutes away from hitting New York City. 

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The debris came from the Long March-5B rocket, an unmanned prototype craft launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the Hainan province in South China on May 5.

On Monday, May 11, the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, which monitors space junk and re-entries, confirmed on Twitter the rocket stage passed back through Earth’s atmosphere as it was flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

According to experts who track space debris and satellites, cited by NBC News, the debris is the fifth-largest piece of space junk ever to have plunged uncontrolled through the Earth’s atmosphere, and the largest object in nearly three decades to fall to Earth unexpectedly.

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Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that if the rocket had come down 15 to 20 minutes earlier it could have crashed straight into New York City.

He commented:

On its last orbit of the Earth, this rocket stage happened to pass directly over Los Angeles and New York City.

It’s just a strange coincidence that it happened to fly over two major urban areas on its last orbit, but if it had come down earlier, there would have been some drama.

It wouldn’t be enough to wipe out New York. It might take out a floor of a building, but either way, that is still more than we need right now.

According to McDowell, the object would’ve been travelling at around 100mph when it hit the ground.

The debris mostly missed dry land as the US Space Force confirmed it landed in the Atlantic Ocean, though some parts of the rocket are thought to have been seen around the Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa.

Local reports noted a 50kg piece of debris pierced the roof of a family home in the region, though there have been no reported casualties and the source of the object hasn’t yet been confirmed.

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It’s not uncommon for rocket debris to fall to Earth after they’re used to boost spacecrafts or satellites into orbit, though McDowell told NBC space agencies typically take extra precautions for rockets of this size to make sure their re-entries aren’t out of control.

He commented:

You might make it so that the engine can restart after you’ve delivered your satellite into orbit, so you fire up the engine and bring the rocket stage in over the South Pacific, where it’s not going to hit anyone.

This rocket stage was just let in low-Earth orbit until friction brought it down. That’s definitely not the current best practice by international standards.

Launch of rocket which fell back to EarthLaunch of rocket which fell back to EarthPA Images

The Long March-5B rocket had been in development for 10 years with the intention of carrying large payloads into low-Earth orbit, China reportedly launched the rocket as part of an unmanned test flight.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: News, China, Los Angeles, New York, Rocket, Space

Credits

NBC News
  1. NBC News

    Chinese rocket debris passed over NYC, LA as it fell to Earth, scientists say