Despite no one knowing where a spent, 10-story Chinese Long March 5B booster rocket will fall to Earth, the Pentagon has no plans to try to shoot it down, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said May 6.
“We’re hopeful that it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone,” Austin said during his first press conference as Defense Secretary.
Although “we have the capability to do a lot of things, … we don’t have a plan to shoot it down, as we speak,” Austin added. The fact that the exact time and place of the rocket’s return to Earth is unpredictable at this point, “speaks to the fact that, for those of us who operate in the space domain, there should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” Austin said. The disposition of space junk should be taken “into consideration as we plan and conduct operations,” he added.
The Pentagon had previously said that the exact point of impact “cannot be pinpointed until within hours of re-entry.” The rocket is reported to be tumbling as it orbits the Earth.
The rocket body was used to loft the core module of China’s new Tianhe space station into orbit on April 29. The station is planned to host taikonauts for long-term missions, and 10 additional modules will be added in the coming months and years. China’s first space station, Taingong-1—scarcely larger than a space capsule—made an uncontrolled re-entry and impact in the Pacific Ocean in 2016. Tiangong-2, the second such craft, made a controlled entry and burned in the atmosphere in 2019.
Normally, such large first-stage rockets fall into the sea after exhausting their fuel, but the Long March went into orbit, possibly unexpectedly. China has declined to say whether it has any control over the booster’s path. The friction of the atmosphere will eventually slow the booster down, and it will then re-enter.
Austin said the Pentagon predicts the booster will make re-entry “between the eighth and ninth” of May.
Chinese state-run media have suggested the Long March will burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere, leaving no pieces to reach the surface.
The situation is a near-replay of an event that took place last year, when an uncontrolled Chinese rocket landed in the Atlantic Ocean after passing over Los Angeles and New York City.
In 2008, the U.S. raised eyebrows by demonstrating it could shoot down one of its own satellites. The USS Lake Erie, employing a specially modified SM-3 Standard missile, intercepted and destroyed the classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite designated as USA-193. The spacecraft had gone out of control soon after being orbited, and while it wasn’t expected that its return to Earth posed a hazard, its hydrazine propellant did. The missile destroyed the satellite and vented its fuel tank at such an altitude that the debris and hydrazine burned up harmlessly.
Russia and China criticized the operation, code-named Burnt Frost, saying it was a response to China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own satellites in 2007, which left thousands of pieces of debris in orbit, creating a hazard to space navigation.
In 1985, the Air Force demonstrated an ASAT missile launched from an F-15A, which destroyed a target in orbit. The test was never repeated, and the missile, designated the ASM-135 and built by Vought, did not go into open production.