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China's Long March-5B rocket could fall out of orbit, analyst says

The Long March-5B rocket, carrying China's Tianhe space station core module, lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan Province, China, on Thursday. File Photo by Matjaz Tancic/EPA-EFE
The Long March-5B rocket, carrying China's Tianhe space station core module, lifted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan Province, China, on Thursday. File Photo by Matjaz Tancic/EPA-EFE

May 4 (UPI) -- A U.S. astrophysicist is raising concerns about a Chinese carrier rocket used last week to launch the main module of a space station, as the rocket's core could be falling out of the Earth's orbit.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, said it is possible some parts of the rocket will survive re-entry and cause damage on land, The Guardian reported Tuesday.

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If the shards make it to land, the destruction could be the "equivalent of a small plane crash scattered over 100 miles," McDowell said, according to the report.

Chinese state media said Thursday that the core module of its first domestically developed space station, the Tianhe, was successfully launched from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on China's Hainan Island.

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The Tianhe, measuring 4.2 meters in diameter and 16.6 meters in length, was carried into space by the Long March-5B carrier rocket, state media said.

Xi Jinping congratulated the crew at the China Manned Space Engineering Office, but the government has since not commented on the status of the Long March rocket, which has entered a temporary orbit, according to McDowell.

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"What's bad is that it's really negligent on China's part," the analyst said. "Things more than 10 tons we don't let them fall out of the sky uncontrolled deliberately."

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Uncertainties about the direction of the rocket could mean its reentry could take place as far north as New York, Madrid and Beijing in the Northern Hemisphere, or as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, according to The Guardian.

McDowell said the "most likely outcome" is that it will fall into the ocean, which comprises more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface.

In April 2018, China's Tiangong 1 space station also spun out of control and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, according to CBS News and BBC at the time.

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Most of the 8.5-ton vehicle burned up upon re-entry, according to Xinhua news agency.

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