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Could falling space debris strike Salt Lake City this weekend?

Posted at 12:31 PM, Jul 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-29 19:43:59-04

SALT LAKE CITY — There's a small possibility, incredibly infinitesimal as it is, that Salt Lake City's weekend may be cut short on Saturday.

By pure luck, Utah's capital city and surrounding areas happen to be directly under the final reentry path of an out-of-control 23-ton rocket booster that is plummeting to Earth.

That's all.

The booster is a Chinese Long March 5B rocket that was launched last Sunday to bring items to the Tiangong space station. Because the rocket reached orbit, it was "no longer able to control where it would reenter without a deorbit maneuver," according to Aerospace Corporation.

Long March 5B
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, the Long March 5B Y3 carrier rocket, carrying Wentian lab module blasts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province Sunday, July 24, 2022.

A similar uncontrolled reentry happened with two other Long March rockets in May 2020 and 2021. Debris from the first instance caused damage in West Africa, but no injuries, while the second landed in the Indian Ocean.

On Saturday, the rocket will tumble directly over northern Utah and Salt Lake City just minutes before the predicted reenter time into Earth's orbit at 12:26 p.m. MST.

Long March reentry map
Map shows reentry track of Long March 5B rocket on Saturday, July 30

Aerospace reports that up to 40 percent of the rocket could survive reentry and reach the ground. Despite the large amount of debris and the fact that Utah is very present on the reentry map, the risk to the U.S. is extremely low.

But...

“It’s fundamentally a low-risk thing, but it’s way higher than it ought to be. It’s 10 times higher than our thresholds,” Aerospace's Ted Muelhaupt told USA TODAY.

“But the fact that we’re having this conversation; the fact that people are out there tracking it ... watching it ... is an unnecessary thing. Even if nothing happens, people being ready in case something happens has costs.”