On April 29, 2021, people watch the Long March 5B rocket, carrying China's Tianhe space station core module, as it lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China's Hainan province. Photo : AFP / STR

The US military has no plans to shoot down an out -of-control Chinese rocket now hurtling towards Earth, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday.

“We have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to shoot it down as we speak,” Austin told journalists.

Pentagon experts expect the body of the Long March 5B rocket, which fell out of orbit after separating from Beijing’s space station, to fall to the surface some time around Saturday or Sunday.

But exactly when and where it will land is still difficult to predict.

“We’re hopeful that it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone. Hopefully in the ocean, or someplace like that,” Austin said.

He suggested that the Chinese were negligent in letting the rocket body fall out of orbit.

“I think this speaks to the fact that, for those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement to  operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” said Austin.

There is a need to “make sure that we take those kinds of things into consideration as we plan and conduct operations” in space, he said.

Following trajectory

The Pentagon had said earlier that it was following the trajectory of the Chinese rocket in view of the risk it would crash down in an inhabited area. 

Austin is “aware and he knows the space command is tracking, literally tracking this rocket debris,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. 

China had launched the first of three elements for its space station, the CSS, which was powered by the Long March 5B rocket that is now being tracked.

The body of the rocket “is almost intact coming down,” Kirby said.

After its separation from the space station module, the rocket began to orbit the Earth in an irregular trajectory as it slowly lost altitude, making any predictions about where it would re-enter the atmosphere or fall back to the ground difficult. 

It could end up breaking apart upon entry, with only smaller debris bits falling to Earth — and even if the rocket falls from the sky mostly intact, there is a good chance it will just splash down into the ocean on a planet made up of 70 percent water. 

But neither of those outcomes is certain, and there is a chance the rocket could crash land into an inhabited area or onto a ship. 

Kirby said Wednesday that it was “too soon” to know whether any action, such as destroying the space debris, could be taken if human-occupied regions were threatened. 

“We’re tracking it. We’re following it as closely as we can,” he said. “It’s just a little too soon right now to know where it’s going to go or what, if anything, can be done about that.”

It is not the first time China has lost control of a space craft as it returns to Earth. The space laboratory Tiangong-1 disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere in 2018, two years after it had stopped working, though Chinese authorities denied they had lost control of the ship. 

– AFP