China said on Friday that the risk of damage from the rocket’s return to Earth was “extremely low” after the United States warned that it could crash into a populated area.
U.S. military experts expect the body of the Long March 5B rocket, which detached from Beijing’s space station, to land sometime on Saturday or Sunday, but warn that it is difficult to predict where and when it will land.
But Beijing surpassed the risk. “The chances of damage to aviation activities or the ground are extremely low,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
He also noted that most of the rocket material could be destroyed once it re-enters the atmosphere, adding that authorities would “inform the public of the situation in a timely manner.”
China has poured billions of dollars into space exploration aimed at reflecting its growing global length and growing technological prowess, following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia and Europe.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that the U.S. military had no plans to launch the rocket after speculation that it would return to Earth.
“We have the potential to do a lot, but we have no plans to ruin it,” Austin told reporters.
Hopefully, he said, the rocket will reach a point where “no one will be harmed … at sea or somewhere like that”.
Even if the rocket or part of it falls from the sky, without stopping re-entry, there is a good chance that it will spread into the ocean on a planet made up of only 70 percent water.
Austin, however, suggested that the Chinese were neglecting to allow the rocket body out of orbit and said that those in the “space domain” should “operate in a safe and thoughtful mode.”
The U.S. space command said the location of the rocket’s rise was due to its position in the Earth’s atmosphere, which could not be pinpointed within hours of re-entry, according to the U.S. May Space Command.
Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell said parts of the rocket were likely to land in May 2020, when another Chinese Long March 5B rocket rained down on Ivory Coast and damaged several buildings.
He said the potentially dangerous debris would probably be saved from burning once the atmosphere spreads at hypersonic speeds, but all chances would fall into the ocean.
Based on current orbits, the debris could fall to the south and south, such as New York, Madrid or Beijing, Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, or anywhere in between, McDowell said.
‘Land of Science’
Space has become the latest theater to play big power between China and the United States.
The launch of the first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station in China in April – housing life support equipment and accommodation 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 retirement of the International Space Station after 2024, China could become the only space center in Earth orbit.
Although Chinese space authorities 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 to prepare for work inside the Chinese space center after its launch.
China also said in March it was planning to build a separate lunar space station with Russia.
This facility, planned for surface or lunar orbits, will have the opportunity to conduct experimental research and will be the largest international space cooperation project in Beijing.
The Long March rocket is not the first time China has lost control of a spacecraft since returning to Earth.
The Tiangang-1 space laboratory crashed after re-entering the atmosphere in 2016, two years after it stopped working, although Chinese authorities denied they had lost control of the spacecraft.