A huge piece of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B (that you see above), will be tumbling back to Earth this weekend in what is called an “uncontrolled re-entry.” That means it’s going to smack into the planet, place and time unknown.
Will it smack into you? Your house? The good soft-serve place down the street? Who knows! The piece is reportedly 10 stories tall and weighs 23 tons. If it does land in your yard, you won’t have much of a yard — or neighbors —afterwards. While it is highly unlikely it will fall into a populated area (European Commission’s Joint Research Center determined that only 10 percent of the planet is inhabited by humans) the chances are not zero.
[Updated Sunday, May 9, 2021 11:30 a.m. EST] the rocket landed in the Indian Ocean, and is now property of the fishes. The bulk of the components burned up on reentry, according to Sky News.
The folks in the space industry are accusing China of negligence, and rightfully so, as noted in the New York Times:
“I think it’s negligent of them,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who tracks the comings and goings of objects in space. “I think it’s irresponsible.”
The piece that will be dropping out of the sky somewhere is the core booster stage of the Long March 5B, which was designed to lift the big, heavy pieces of the space station. For most rockets, the lower stages usually drop back to Earth immediately after launch. Upper stages that reach orbit usually fire the engine again after releasing their payloads, guiding them toward re-entry in an unoccupied area like the middle of an ocean.
Over the past three decades, only China has lifted rocket stages this big to orbit and left them to fall somewhere at random, Dr. McDowell said.
For the Long March 5B booster, that could be anywhere between 41.5 degrees north latitude and 41.5 degrees south latitude. That means Chicago, located a fraction of a degree farther north, is safe, but major cities like New York could be hit by debris.
Sure, that’s not great news. But if the rocket falls in your yard, do you get to keep it?
Our own Jason Torchnisky explored this idea when a huge aircraft engine nacelle bezel fell off of a United Airlines flight and into someone’s yard. He talked to a few lawyers who told him, unfortunately, that the homeowners couldn’t claim the bezel. Basically, if it’s lost and everybody knows who the owner is, the thing should go back to the owner:
A general precept of the law of lost property is that a finder of property acquires no rights in mislaid property, is entitled to possession of lost property against everyone except the true owner, and is entitled to keep abandoned property. As the true owner here is both known and has a superior claim, its interest is superior to the finder’s.
That is a bummer. However! This part of the Long March 5B rocket is being knowingly tossed aside by the Chinese space program. Usually knowing if a piece of property was knowingly abandoned or unknowingly lost is an issue. Property lost or mislaid by someone still belongs to that person, not the finder. Here it’s clear cut, though: China is chucking this bit of trash at the Earth and doesn’t care where it ends up. It’s not China’s problem. This changes up our calculus, according to the folks at Cornell University:
Personal property left by an owner who intentionally relinquishes all rights to its control.
At common law, a person who finds abandoned property may claim it. To do so, the finder must take definite steps to show their claim. For example, a finder might claim an abandoned piece of furniture by taking it to her house, or putting a sign on it indicating her ownership.
This is the one time where the Finders-Keepers rule we’ve all known since elementary school may actually be enforceable. There’s even precedent for this kind of thing. Wreckage from NASA’s Skylab Space Station rained down on Western Australia when it fell from orbit in July 12, 1979. Oxygen tanks, storage freezers and even the docking hatch put on quite a light show as they came down over the small port city of Esperance. A lot of the slightly-singed junk made its way into the Esperance Municipal Museum. The museum wasn’t the only place to snag parts of the space station, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation notes:
From Perth to Salmon Gums, callers were adamant that, despite suggestions otherwise, they had witnessed the now-infamous “sonic boom”.
As daylight broke, and residents woke to the carnage strewn conspicuously among the arid red soils of West Australia, punters were proven correct.
“Souvenir hunters rushed into the outback by Jeep, Land Rover and even chartered aircraft,” Time magazine reported in the days after.
I could find no reports of anyone being forced to give up their prizes. In that case, I will say that America was pretty embarrassed to lose such a large and costly object as Skylab. Jimmy Carter was probably hoping to put the whole mess behind him. Apparently there are pieces still up for grabs littered across the less traveled parts of Western Australia.
Pretty confident in my answer, I reached out to several lawyers, as well as the same lawyer as Torchnisky contacted before (a stand-up guy named Rohn Robbins) to see what would be the property owners’ rights if a piece of rocket landed in their yard.
None responded (though I will update if I hear back) except for our Editor-In-Chief’s wife and our physically closest lawyer, Christina Carroll. She focuses on a very complicated form of tax law, but not so complicated as to verge on international space property rights. She said the rules are, predictably, extremely complex, involving everything from local laws to international treaties. If you do end up with a piece of the Long March 5B in your yard, the Feds will probably confiscate it.
Of course, there’s nothing from stopping you from sneaking some debris into your house. I won’t tell if you won’t. Just make sure to be stealthy about removing parts from the probably on-fire 10-story tall space debris.