The United States has no current plans to shoot down debris from the massive rocket China sent into orbit last week as it continues to make an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Austin made the remarks after being asked about the Chinese Long March 5B, which the latest estimate expects to come back into Earth’s atmosphere sometime between Saturday and Sunday.
“At this point, we don’t have a plan to shoot the rocket down,” he first said, going on to express his hope that the vessel will fall into the ocean, causing no harm to anyone or anything on Earth.
“We have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to shoot it down as we speak,” he continued.
In a veiled dig at Beijing, Austin later remarked that, “For those of us who operate in the space domain, there should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode and make sure we take those kinds of things into consideration.”
When the 22-ton core component separated from the rest of the massive rocket, the remaining portion was supposed to take a predetermined path that would send it falling into the ocean.
Instead, it is orbiting unpredictably.
There are several possible places where debris that survives re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere could crash down.
Among them are New York, Madrid and Beijing in the Northern Hemisphere and southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand, in the Southern.
Its exact landing is impossible to predict due to its current velocity, but the most likely outcome will be it falling into the ocean or uninhabited regions, which account for a large portion of the projected range.
“It’s potentially not good,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told the Guardian following last Thursday’s launch.
“Last time they launched a Long March 5B rocket they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast,” McDowell said.
“Most of it burned up, but there were these enormous pieces of metal that hit the ground. We are very lucky no one was hurt,” he added.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that it was “too soon to explore options about what, if anything, could be done about this, until we have a better sense of where it’s coming down.”
“We’re tracking it, we’re following it as closely as we can. It’s just a little too soon right now to know where it’s going to go or what if anything can be done about that,” he continued.
Speaking to reporters at her daily briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to provide a firm answer when asked about accountability for Beijing if debris from the vessel were to harm anyone.
“The United States is committed to addressing the risks of growing congestion due to space debris and growing activity in space and we want to work with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors,” Psaki began.
“It’s in the shared interests of all nations to act responsibly in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities, so cooperation is a hallmark of our approach. We’re going to work with our international partners on that, and certainly addressing this is something we’ll do through those channels,” she continued.