An astronomer has warned Australia could be in the path of the uncontrolled re-entry of debris from a Chinese rocket, which is due to fall back into the earth's atmosphere on Sunday afternoon.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, has predicted debris from Long March 5B, which entered a temporary orbit, could fly through Australian airspace before crash landing.
It will be one of the largest ever uncontrolled re-entires in history, with experts fearing rocket parts could crash down on populated parts of the globe.
Mr McDowell revealed the debris will be expected sometime between 1.04am and 3.04am UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), which will be between 11.04am and 1pm AEST (Australian Eastern Standard Time).
In a series of maps shared to Twitter, Mr McDowell highlighted the times the debris may be visible above land, with him predicting it to shoot from West Australia to Canberra, then Wellington and the South Pacific between 11.04am to 11.17am AEST in one scenario.
The second map showed it travelling from Costa Rica to Haiti and on to the Atlantic between 11.44am and 11.47am AEST.
According to the third map, the debris will pass Braga in Portugal at 12.02pm, Valladolid in Spain at 12.03pm, then Reus in Spain, Oristano in Sardinia, Rosarno in Calabria, Italy, and Kythira in Greece by 12.08pm.
It will then travel past Sitia in Crete, Gaza at 12.11pm, Jordan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at 12.14pm, and Dhofar in Oman at 12.17pm.
The debris is expected to make a return to Australia according to the fourth map, passing above the Indian Ocean then Perth at 12.36pm, then northern Tasmania at 12.43pm, and back to Wellington at 12.48pm.
While a precise time and location of impact has yet to be determined, the latest prediction from the United States Space Force's 18 Space Control Squadron said it could land in the Mediterranean Basin ocean – an outcome that would luckily avoid human injury or major property damage.
The debris could land an hour each side of the predicted time, and may differ from the predicted location – latitude 35.9, longitude 24.4 – with the details expected to be unknown until it actually lands.
The US government said it had no plans to shoot down the rocket debris.
China launches have crashed back to land before
China launched an unmanned module on Thursday (local time) containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.
The module, named "Tianhe", or "Harmony of the Heavens", was launched on the Long March 5B, China's largest carrier rocket.
The core of the Long March 5B then entered a temporary orbit before what experts say will be one of the largest ever uncontrolled re-entires.
"It’s potentially not good," Mr McDowell told The Guardian last week.
"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," he said.
In that incident in May last year, local reports claimed a piece of 12-metre-long debris fell from the sky, crashing in the village of Mahounou.
Fortunately, no one was reported to be injured.
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