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Huge piece of Chinese rocket set for 'unacceptable' uncontrolled re-entry to Earth — possibly over NZ

After successfully launching a module for its space station last Thursday, a piece of China’s Long March 5B rocket is now on course for an uncontrolled re-entry back to Earth.

A Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province, Thursday, April 29, 2021. Source: Associated Press

According to Spacenews, the core stage of the rocket could re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over Wellington anytime over the next days or week.

However, the space-focused news site also points out there are other possibilities of where the debris could enter the atmosphere.

“The orbital inclination of 41.5 degrees means the rocket body passes a little farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile,” Spacenews reports.

At around 21 tonnes, it would be the largest uncontrolled re-entry of a spacecraft, which has the potential to crash into an inhabited area. Spacenews points out, however, that the chances of it crashing into a populated area are a lot smaller than it impacting an uninhabited zone, or the sea.

Spaceflight observer Jonathan McDowell has been tracking the core stage of the rocket.

“Since 1990 nothing over 10 tons has been deliberately left in orbit to re-enter uncontrolled,” McDowell told Spacenews.

“I think by current standards it’s unacceptable to let it re-enter uncontrolled.”

To date, the 1979 uncontrolled re-entry of NASA’s 76-ton Skylab is the most well-known example of space debris crashing back to Earth.

That incident saw scattered debris across the Indian Ocean and Western Australia.