Portion of Chinese Rocket Expected to Hit Earth Saturday, but Where Is a Mystery

A portion of a Chinese rocket is expected to plunge back to Earth as early as this weekend.

The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, China's first permanent space station into orbit on April 29.

Discarded rocket stages are usually immediately guided into a controlled demolition by friction in Earth's atmosphere. But China's space agency has yet to comment publicly on the rocket's trajectory of reentry or say whether the "core stage" of the rocket is being controlled or will make an out-of-control descent.

The U.S. Department of Defense expects the rocket stage to fall to Earth on Saturday. Where it will hit "cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry," the Pentagon said in a statement Tuesday.

The nonprofit Aerospace Corp. expects the debris to hit the Pacific near the Equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities. Its orbit covers a swath of the planet from New Zealand to Newfoundland.

China Rocket Reenter Earth
People watch a Long March 5B rocket, which carries China's Tianhe space station core module, lifting off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in southern China's Hainan province on April 29, 2021. The rocket is expected to land back on Earth as early as Saturday. STR / AFP/STR/AFP via Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Phone calls to the China National Space Administration weren't answered on Wednesday, a holiday.

However, the newspaper Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party, said the stage's "thin-skinned" aluminum-alloy exterior will easily burn up in the atmosphere, posing an extremely remote risk to people.

The roughly 30-meter (100-foot) -long stage would be among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.

Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.

China's first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by U.S. aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

Chinese Rocket Reenter Earth
In this April 29, 2021, file photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province. The central rocket segment that launched the 22.5-ton core of China's newest space station into orbit is due to plunge back to Earth as early as Saturday in an unknown location. Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua via AP,