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Chinese Rocket Set To Fall Back To Earth Soon, But No One Is Sure Where

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A massive Chinese rocket that launched into space last week is out of control and tumbling back to Earth. It's supposed to enter the atmosphere as early as tomorrow, and no one's exactly sure where it's going to land. To be clear, it probably won't hit anyone or anything. But while there's a low risk to public safety, it highlights a growing call for greater regulation of space junk. From member station WMFE in Orlando, Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: When the Chinese space agency launched part of its new space station...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

BYRNE: The 100-foot rocket delivered its payload into orbit. Normally, mission managers would send it into a controlled deorbit back to Earth. That didn't happen. So now the 24-ton rocket is about to crash into the atmosphere at 18,000 miles per hour.

JONATHAN MCDOWELL: And so the concern is it's going to get low enough as it has friction with the atmosphere to bring it down.

BYRNE: That's Jonathan McDowell of Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He says most pieces of space junk burn up in the atmosphere, but this one is so big, parts of it are expected to survive the fiery reentry.

MCDOWELL: Then it will burst into flame and fall into pieces that will fall to Earth. And, of course, we don't know where because we don't know exactly when.

BYRNE: Despite the uncertainty, the public safety risk is quite small. It will likely land in the ocean, which covers some 70% of the planet.

MCDOWELL: As an individual, well, if you're worried for yourself, don't be, right? The Earth is big. The chance that it's going to land on your head is pretty tiny.

BYRNE: Still, the return of the space debris highlights a growing need to regulate space junk. The U.S. Space Command tracks some 27,000 pieces of orbital debris around the clock. That number increases after every launch, says space policy analyst Laura Forczyk.

LAURA FORCZYK: Think of it in terms of Earth pollution. If we just keep on littering the Earth's surface, eventually we need to clean that up. And the same thing has happened with all the launching parties, the United States included.

BYRNE: Another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled back to Earth last year, when it landed off West Africa. The White House says the U.S. is committed to addressing the risk of space junk and will work with the international community to promote responsible behavior in space. The latest estimates have the piece of debris making entry tomorrow night, give or take nine hours.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNA MEREDITH'S "HOW TO BE CONFIDENT (FOR REAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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