The US military has no plan to shoot down the remnants of a large Chinese rocket expected to plunge back through the atmosphere this weekend, the defense secretary said on Thursday.
Speaking with reporters, Lloyd Austin said the hope was the rocket would land in the ocean and that the latest estimate was that it would come down between Saturday and Sunday.
“We have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don’t have a plan to shoot it down as we speak,” Austin said.
“We’re hopeful that it will land in a place where it won’t harm anyone. Hopefully in the ocean, or someplace like that,” he added.
The Long March 5B rocket blasted off from China’s Hainan island on 29 April and carried the Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters for three crew members on a permanent Chinese space station. The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the station.
The Aerospace Corp has said it expects the debris from the rocket to hit the Pacific near the equator after passing over eastern US cities.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Wednesday that the US is committed to addressing the risks of space debris, and wants to work with the international community “to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors”.
“For those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” Austin added on Thursday. There is a need to “make sure that we take those kinds of things into consideration as we plan and conduct operations” in space, he said.
The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid published by the official People’s Daily, characterized reports that the rocket is “out of control” and could cause damage as “Western hype”. The situation is “not worth panicking about”, it said, citing industry insiders.