Pentagon Has No Plans to Shoot Down Free-falling Chinese Rocket
Secretary Austin is monitoring the large rocket’s decaying orbit, but spokesman says it’s “too early” to develop options to intercept.
Updated: May 7, 9:13 a.m.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is monitoring a free-falling Chinese rocket that could strike Earth this weekend, but has not developed options to destroy the debris if it is projected to hit land.
A 100-foot section of the Long March 5B rocket is anticipated to fall to Earth around May 8, but it’s “too soon to explore options about what, if anything, can be done about this until we have a better sense of where it's coming down,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
“The Secretary is aware and he knows that Space Command is tracking,” Kirby said Wednesday. Asked whether the secretary had developed plans to strike the rocket debris and break it up into smaller pieces, or quickly notify allies once its trajectory is known, Kirby said it was too early to take that action.
On Thursday at a Pentagon press briefing with reporters, Austin said there was still no plan—yet.
"We don't have a plan to shoot the rocket down. We're hopeful that it will land in a place where it won't harm anyone, hopefully, in the ocean or—or someplace like that," Austin said. When pressed further about what action the Pentagon could take if the rocket body does look like it will threaten land, Austin said "we have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don't have a plan to shoot it down, as we speak."
The rocket’s exact entry point into the Earth's atmosphere won’t be known “until within hours of its reentry,” U.S. Space Command said in a statement, raising questions about whether that would be too late to take action if its path threatens a local population.
U.S. Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is tracking the rocket.
Space Command said in a separate statement that where the rocket will hit depends on “too many factors to take into account this early, such as the atmospheric conditions and the exact angle of the object as it enters the atmosphere.”
There’s precedent for the U.S. shooting down debris as it falls to Earth. The U.S. Navy in 2008 launched a missile to hit a malfunctioning spy satellite falling out of orbit. That satellite stopped working early in its mission, so it still had a lot of fuel on board, and could have spread the toxic fuel when it crashed.
Because the Chinese rocket has already expended most or all of its fuel getting its payload to orbit, there are no environmental concerns in this case and it would not be “useful” to shoot it down, said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation.
After China launched the same model rocket last year, chunks of debris fell on at least two villages in the Ivory Coast when the rocket re-entered the atmosphere.
And there’s reason to believe uncontrolled Chinese rockets falling to Earth will continue to be a problem, because Beijing will keep using this rocket for heavy-lift missions, including building out its new space station, said Ted Muelhaupt, the principal director at the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies.
More than 100 U.S. military personnel, foreign exchange officers and civilians work at the 18th SPCS. They work around the clock, in crews of four with additional backup support, to maintain a “space catalog” of all man-made objects in space. They also provide launch, orbit and re-entry-breakup analysis of those objects, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mae-Li Allison, a spokeswoman for the Combined Force Space Component Command.
The 18th SPCS is tracking not only the Chinese rocket, but also approximately 32,000 other space objects orbiting Earth, Allison said.
Of those, about 4,300 are operational satellites, Weeden said.
In 2020 there were about 135 man-made objects that entered Earth’s atmosphere. Most of those burned up during their descent, Allison said.
Space objects fall to Earth “about once every three days,” a Space Force official told Defense One. “But usually it’s small and it’s over water, and during the day time, and you can’t see that.”
What makes this rocket different is that it is such a large single piece of space debris, Space Command said in a statement.
“The object that is expected to reenter is the entire rocket body,” Space Command said. “This particular rocket does not have multiple stages, as many other rockets have (i.e. a lower stage and an upper stage). That is the reason this is an unusually large size.”
Muelhaupt said this is among the top 10 largest pieces of space debris to have ever re-entered the atmosphere uncontrolled.
The 18th SPCS is posting regular updates on the rocket’s fall at http://www.space-track-org.
Identifying where the rocket body will land is further complicated by the fact that it’s still in orbit and so it’s impossible to measure exactly when gravity will pull it to Earth. In addition, the Earth is rotating underneath the rocket, making it even more difficult to predict where it will land, Weeden said.
A similar incident occurred in 2018, when experts worried about where the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 would hit after its freefall. It ended up splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
Many nations take additional precautions to ensure their space assets do not inflict damage on Earth, but “China is probably more comfortable taking these risks right now,” said Makena Young, a research associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Aerospace Security Project. “It’s not something that’s very common, which is a good thing. You don’t want it to become something common.”
On top of the 30,000 space objects, there are hundreds of thousands more that are too small for the military to track, but that can still do a lot of damage to other assets in space, Weeden said.
In 2016, for example, European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake shared a photo of a 7 millimeter chip in the International Space Station’s main viewing window that was likely caused by “a paint flake or small metal fragment no bigger than a few thousandths of a millimeter across.”
The government is taking steps to avoid incidents like this in the future. Agencies that issue licenses to launch to and operate in space, such as the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration, require companies to have a plan for when their assets return to Earth’s atmosphere, including what parts might not burn up upon re-entry.