MADRID – A drifting Chinese missile is on its way back to Earth. The missile is out of control. Some of it will burn up in the atmosphere, but larger fragments could end up on Earth. That can also be on land.
The Chinese rocket launched part of a space station last Monday but then lost control. It was estimated that the debris would come over Spain, especially Catalonia and three other regions. That is why, as a precaution, the airspace was closed for a short time on Friday morning. At the airports of Barcelona, Tarragona, Ibiza and Reus, no planes could take off or land between 9.38 and 10.18 am.
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When the missile remains fly past Spain, they travel through the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian Ocean. Experts had previously indicated that debris from space would fall to Earth over the weekend. That is already happening a day earlier.
Once a craft is in orbit around the Earth, the parts that made it take off are no longer needed. In some cases, they then get a push so that they are grabbed by gravity. They then plunged into the Pacific Ocean between Chile and New Zealand. That is the most remote place on Earth. The nearest piece of land is nearly 2,700 kilometres away.
In other cases, the rocket fragments are pushed upwards, so that they also remain in orbit around the earth. As a result, many thousands of pieces of space debris revolved around our planet.
Missile with module ‘Dreams of Heaven’
Last Monday, China launched the third and final component of its space station, Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace. The ‘Mengtian’ (‘Dreams of Heaven’) module was launched atop a powerful Long March 5B rocket and docked with the other two parts 13 hours later. The core of the great Chinese rocket – weighing 21 tons and the size of a 10-storey building – has been falling wildly and tumbling back to Earth ever since. Last July, another part went to the space station, and the remains of the rocket ended up in the sea off the Philippines.
Northern Spain and Portugal in danger zone
The European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking service said to Reuters the debris of the Chinese missile would most likely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in the mid-Atlantic and likely land in the sea. The agency also warned that northern Spain and Portugal and southern Italy were also within the missile’s potential trajectory.
“The statistical probability of a ground impact in populated areas is low,” the EUSST said. “However, these predictions come with uncertainties, and a better estimate will only be possible near the return.” It was the fourth flight of the Long March 5B since its initial launch in May 2020.
On the first deployment, fragments of the missile landed on Côte d’Ivoire. Several buildings were damaged, thoug no injuries were reported. Debris from the second flight landed harmlessly in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, remains from the third fell into the Sulu Sea in the Philippines.
The return of the Chinese missile into the atmosphere is a common international practice. Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said on Friday when asked whether China had taken steps to mitigate the risks.