As Chinese rocket barrels toward Earth, FAA working with NORAD on potential impact to commercial air travel

Out of control rocket could travel through American airspace, where FAA handles 45,000 flights per day

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to track any impact the Chinese rocket hurtling uncontrolled toward Earth might have on commercial air travel, the agency told FOX Business. 

In normal space launches, rocket bodies detach and fall on a planned path into the ocean. But this Chinese rocket accidentally went into orbit around the Earth and is circling the planet on a path to eventually crash. Officials aren't sure where it will land. 

"The FAA is engaged with NORAD and will send out an advisory to any facilities that would be potentially impacted. Tactical decisions, if needed, will be made based on real-time information," an FAA spokesperson told FOX Business when asked about any potential impact the rocket could have on commercial air travel in the form of delays or cancellations. 

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province, Thursday, April 29, 2021. ( (AP)


The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit that provides technical guidance to the U.S. government on space-related matters, shows on its website that the rocket could reenter above the United States, South America, southern Europe, Africa, Asia or Australia. Nearly every major city in the United States is within the "uncertainty window." 

This could mean that the rocket could travel through U.S. airspace, where the FAA handles 45,000 flights per day, on average. The FAA statement did not elaborate on what "tactical decisions" it may need to make or the scope of the impact they may have.

"U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry, which is expected around May 8," a statement from the U.S. Space Command read earlier this week. 

Experts have emphasized that the risk to any individual person or location is very small. The rocket is more likely than not to land in an ocean. And even if it does not, it is highly likely to land in an unpopulated area. 

"Bottom Line = Don't panic," the Space Track website, through which the 18th Space Control Squadron is providing updates on the rocket's location, tweeted.


But, astronomer Jonathan McDowell noted, it is possible that the rocket could cause damage on the ground like a previous Chinese rocket did to villages along Africa's Ivory Coast. 

"I completely agree, no reason for panic," McDowell tweeted, responding to a Chinese state media article about the rocket. "BUT ‘... could cause damage [is] Western hype’ No, I disagree. The last one caused damage!"

The latest prediction from Space Track on when the rocket could re-enter the atmosphere is just after 7 p.m., Eastern Time, on Saturday, plus or minus 9 hours.