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Pentagon hunts for uncontrollable Chinese rocket that could enter Earth’s atmosphere

(CNN) –

The Pentagon has said it is tracking a large Chinese rocket that is out of control and is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere over the weekend, raising concerns about where its debris could impact.

China’s Long March 5B rocket is expected to enter Earth’s atmosphere “around May 8,” according to a statement from Defense Department spokesman Mike Howard, who said US Space Command was following the rocket’s path.

The “exact point of entry of the rocket into Earth’s atmosphere” cannot be identified until hours after reentry, Howard said, but the 18th Space Control Squadron will provide daily updates on the location of the rocket. rocket ship via the Space Track website. The rocket was used by the Chinese to launch part of their space station last week. While most space debris burns in the atmosphere, the rocket’s size – 22 tons – raised concerns that large pieces could fit in and cause damage if they hit populated areas.

But Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University’s Center for Astrophysics, told CNN the situation was “not the end of days.”

“I don’t think people should take precautions. The risk of it getting damaged or hitting someone is pretty low – not insignificant it could happen – but the risk of it hitting you is incredibly small. And so I wouldn’t waste a second of sleep on the basis of a personal threat, ”he said.

“There are much more important things to fear.”

McDowell explained that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where the debris could be heading at this point due to the speed of the rocket’s travel – even slight changes in circumstances drastically alter the trajectory.

“We expect him to come home between May 8-10. And in that two-day period, he goes around the world 30 times. The thing is traveling at about 18,000 miles an hour. And so, if you have an hour to guess when it falls, you’re 18,000 miles away to say where. ”

“And so you shouldn’t believe anyone who tells you, ‘Oh yeah, I heard it was going down in this particular place,'” McDowell added. “Don’t believe them at least a few hours before school starts, because we just won’t know in advance.”

Still, the ocean remains the safest bet for where the debris will land, he said, simply because it occupies most of the Earth’s surface.

“If you want to bet on where something is going to land on Earth, you bet on the Pacific, because the Pacific is most of the Earth. It’s that simple, ”McDowell said.

The concern over space debris comes after China launched the first module of its scheduled space station Thursday morning from the Wenchang launch site on the southern island of Hainan, according to China’s National Space Administration.

The Chinese space station will not launch at the same time; it will be assembled from several modules launched at different times. Chinese state media reports that the country’s space station will be fully operational by the end of 2022.

CNN’s Katie Hunt contributed to this report.

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