Out-of-control Chinese rocket flies over New York, LA

A massive out-of-control Chinese rocket has fallen to Earth days behind schedule, narrowly missing Los Angeles and New York.

The Long March CZ-5B was supposed to burn up on re-entry after its successful launch on May 5, but instead went into an unstable low orbit. 

At 21 tonnes, it was twice as heavy as China's Tiangong-1 space station, which crash-landed in the South Pacific near Tahiti in April 2018, and the biggest object to make an uncontrolled entry in almost 30 years, according to one expert. 

The out-of-control rocket narrowly missed Los Angeles and New York.
The out-of-control rocket narrowly missed Los Angeles and New York. Photo credit: Twitter / Jonathan McDowell

As objects lose altitude, they descend into thicker atmosphere and the friction slows them down, further hastening their fall. Long March ultimately fell into the Atlantic Ocean, US officials confirmed.

Despite reports of debris turning up in Côte d'Ivoire in Africa, one astronomer estimated if it had come down just 13 minutes earlier, it would have hit New York City. At one point, it passed directly overhead Central Park.

But it wouldn't have been a 9/11-level disaster.

"For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive re-entry and crash to Earth," Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell told CNN. 

"Once they reach the lower atmosphere they are travelling relatively slowly, so worst case is they could take out a house."

McDowell compared it to what would happen if a piece of an airplane fell off and hit a house, like in the cult Jake Gyllenhaal film Donnie Darko

"It's just a strange coincidence that it happened to fly over two major urban areas on its last orbit, but if it had come down earlier, there would have been some drama," he told NBC News.

"It wouldn't be enough to wipe out New York. It might take out a floor of a building, but either way, that is still more than we need right now."