A 22-ton rocket is hurtling to Earth.
This fact may seem like cause for alarm: scientists don’t know where Long March 5B will crash down, how much of it will survive burn-up on re-entry, or if any of it will hit anything. But space enthusiasts and government agencies alike are glued to its spiral downward nonetheless — and you can watch the show, too.
First, a little background — The Long March 5B rocket placed China’s Tianhe space station module into Earth orbit on April 29. Long March 5B is huge — 22.5 metric tons in weight and several stories tall.
On Monday, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Inverse that sending Long March 5B up to space without a contingency plan in place for it coming back to Earth “is real negligence.”
“When they did that design, they should have stopped and thought, ‘you know, that's going to leave a big chunk of debris in orbit, we should change the design of the engine’ ... But they didn't.”
The Chinese government, for its part, claims most of it will burn up on re-entry, “which is in line with international common practice.” Given its size, some parts of Long March 5B will come down intact. And the Chinese government is right — there is no law to prevent Long March 5B (or indeed any piece of space debris) from falling, at least in part, to Earth.
The chances of Long March 5B striking your house are low. And only one person has been hurt by a piece of space junk that we know of, and it was just a bit of bruising. (A Cuban cow was less lucky.) But space debris has caused property damage, including a 2020 fall which damaged a village in Côte d'Ivoire.
This time, the rocket is passing over populated areas in North and South America, Africa, and Western Europe. We don’t know yet where it will land, here are five of the best ways to track it from home:
- Social media
- Virtual Telescope Project
How to track Long March 5B
At the time of publishing, journalist Andrew Jones writes on Twitter: “Long March 5B reentry prediction for the Aerospace Corporation for 03:43 UTC May 9 ± 16 hours (11:43 8 May -19:43 9 May).”
That means Long March 5B may reenter Earth’s atmosphere around 11:43 p.m. Eastern Friday.
As the below map shows, there are many places —both terrestrial and marine — any debris from the rocket could crash down on Earth after it reenters:
As we watch the descent, these are five of the best places to find the latest information as it comes to light.
5. Social media
It may come as no surprise that Reddit is keeping a close eye on what’s going on. Some Redditors are even posting content like the slightly sinister bingo-like card up above. For reference, it was posted to a (worryingly titled) Elon Musk fan subreddit.
A YouTube user who goes by Universal Citizen also has a live stream with predictions coming in as they happen, as well as ambient music to help soothe your anxieties as the rocket comes back to Earth.
It’s also a good idea to follow experts on Twitter, including McDowell, who posts regular updates on the rocket’s status.
4. Virtual Telescope Project
The Virtual Telescope Project uses a fleet of telescopes to monitor astronomical events. It will update the website with information on the re-entry of the rocket. They will begin their live stream of the rocket’s descent late Friday, Eastern time, so you can watch as you hit refresh, too.
The Russian space agency is taking a careful look at the trajectory of the rocket. The agency “continues monitoring the Chinese heavy launch vehicle Long March 5B second stage uncontrolled deorbit,” according to a statement from the agency.
It echoes the Chinese government’s sentiment that a good portion of the rocket will burn up on reentry. Currently, Roscosmos places Long March 5B on a trajectory that places it over the Pacific Ocean with a May 9 fall.
It also has a database of previous re-entry situations akin to the one unfolding today. Aerospace Corporations is currently predicting a re-entry late Saturday night or early Sunday morning — which is a little later than Roscomos’ prediction. But Aerospace has a huge margin of error — plus or minus 11 hours either way. The murkiness speaks to how hard this object has been to pin down.
While it is not offering visualizations and user registration is required, Space-Track.org is offering continuous data updates on the fall of the rocket. The site is run by the Science Applications International Corporation. It monitors objects in Earth’s orbit in general as well as other re-entries like Long March 5B. But users beware: The information is somewhat technical but gives latitude and longitude predictions. For what it is worth, the U.S. government’s Pentagon has been pointing people toward this site.