UPDATED | NOVEMBER 3, 2022

A Quick Guide to Understanding Orbital Debris Reentry Predictions

Wondering if you’re in a debris path? Here’s what all those blue and yellow lines mean.

The ground tracks shown in the map above display the full uncertainty window for the Long March 5B rocket body. As time to reentry shrinks, the uncertainty and predictions for time and location will become more specific. Credit: The Aerospace Corporation
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The prediction for the Long March 5B rocket body reentry on 30 July 2022 from the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies. Credit: The Aerospace Corporation
  • The blue line shows the ground track uncertainty prior to the middle of the reentry window; each tick mark is a five-minute interval
  • The yellow line is the ground track uncertainty after the middle of the reentry window; each tick mark is a five-minute interval
  • The pink icon indicates the vicinity of an eyewitness sighting or recovered debris, if applicable
  • The red icon shows Space Track’s predicted location of reentry, if applicable

The Current Situation

The Long March 5B reentry is unusual because, during launch, the first stage of the rocket reached orbital velocity instead of falling downrange as is common practice. The empty rocket body is now in a near-circular orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled reentry.

Reentry prediction from the Aerospace Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies on 3 Nov for the Long March 5B rocket body launched 31 Oct. The current prediction for reentry is 04 Nov 2022 11:20 UTC ± 3 hours. Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

Debris Footprint of Long March 5B

The spread of debris, referred to as the “debris footprint,” is not something experts can speculate on at this time, given the degree of uncertainty remaining for the reentry point. However, any spot away from the lines are very unlikely to be at risk from debris.

This plot shows the history of predictions over time for the estimated 30 Jul reentry of a Long March 5B rocket body. The dots are predicted reentry date and time, and the vertical bars represent the nominal error of the estimated reentry. The prediction becomes more consistent, and the error bars shrink. Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

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The Aerospace Corporation

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.