Egyptian space agency head says Chinese rocket fears are overblown

Gad El Qady called the situation ‘not very safe, but not very dangerous’ and emphasised that Egypt is no more at risk than many other countries

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket took off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on April 29. Photo: China Daily via Reuters
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket took off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on April 29. Photo: China Daily via Reuters

Fears that debris from a Chinese rocket currently circling the globe will fall in a populated area when it soon plunges to Earth are overblown, said the president of Egypt’s National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG).

“I want to tell people not to listen to rumours and all the words that are on social media. The situation is not very safe, but not very dangerous,” Gad El Qady told The National.

“The Chinese rocket” in Arabic has been trending on Twitter in the Arab world, with social media users making jokes about impending disaster.

Rumours include statements that the Long March 5B rocket lost control over Egypt twice, and even passed over specific governorates, including Sohag and Assiut.

The rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifted off from China’s Hainan Island on April 29.

The largest section of the rocket that launched the 22.5-ton core into orbit is expected to make an uncontrolled entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in an unknown location either Saturday or Sunday.

The single core stage is estimated to be cylindrical measuring approximately 5 metres by 33 metres with a dry mass of 18 tons, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

“The danger of the debris is that if it goes into a populated area, it will cause a lot of damage. But if it falls in the ocean, there will be no problem,” Mr El Qady said.

“There is no clear chance or percentage” of either scenario, but there is a high likelihood that it would plunge into the two-thirds of the planet that is covered in ocean, he added.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told CNN that “the risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small”.

Smaller objects burn up entirely in the atmosphere and “re-entries of large objects that potentially generate surviving fragments are not such common events”, the ESA said in a statement.

Several space agencies are tracking the rocket, including US Space Command and the ESA’s Space Debris office.

“Its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its re-entry, which is expected around May 8”, US Space Command said in a statement.

The 18th Space Control Squadron in California is providing daily updates to the rocket body’s location on space-track.org.

Egypt’s NRIAG is also tracking the location through its satellite and space debris monitoring station, which was inaugurated in December.

“Every 90 minutes it makes one turn around the Earth, so 15 turns a day,” Mr El Qady said. “Once per day, it goes over the Egyptian sky.”

He said the last time it went over Egypt was at 5:34am on Thursday. It takes 3.5 minutes to go from the southwestern corner of Egypt to the north-eastern corner with Jordan at a speed of 28,000 kilometres per hour, he said.

However, Egypt is no more at risk than several other countries.

The orbital inclination of the Long March 5B core is estimated at 41.5 degrees, which means that the rocket body passes slightly north of New York, Madrid and Beijing, and as far south as Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, the NRIAG said in a statement.

The current debris risk zone includes any portion of Earth’s surface between 41.5 North and 41.5 South latitude, the ESA said.

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This would not be the first time rocket debris has fallen to Earth. In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX crashed in Washington and the Oregon coast.

Last year, an empty core stage from a Chinese rocket weighing in at nearly 20 tons passed over Los Angeles and New York City before landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid published by the official People’s Daily, reported that claims that the rocket wreckage will fly back out of control and may cause damage to inhabited areas is “nothing but Western hype”.

Updated: May 6, 2021 09:00 PM

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