The probability that parts of the booster could hit populated land is admittedly quite low—it’s much more likely to land in the ocean somewhere. But that probability is not zero. Case in point: the CZ-5B booster’s debut last year for a mission on May 5, 2020. The same problem arose back then as well: the core booster ended up in an uncontrolled orbit before eventually reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Debris landed in villages across Ivory Coast. It was enough to elicit a notable rebuke from the NASA administrator at the time, Jim Bridenstine.
The same story is playing out this time, and we’re playing the same waiting game because of how difficult it is to predict when and where this thing will reenter. The first reason is the booster’s speed: it’s currently traveling at nearly 30,000 kilometers per hour, orbiting the planet about once every 90 minutes. The second reason has to do with the amount of drag the booster is experiencing. Although technically it’s in space, the booster is still interacting with the upper edges of the planet’s atmosphere.
That drag varies from day to day with changes in upper-atmosphere weather, solar activity, and other phenomena. In addition, the booster isn’t just zipping around smoothly and punching through the atmosphere cleanly—it’s tumbling, which creates even more unpredictable drag.
Given those factors, we can establish a window for when and where we think the booster will reenter Earth’s atmosphere. But a change of even a couple of minutes can put its location thousands of miles away. “It can be difficult to model precisely, meaning we are left with some serious uncertainties when it comes to the space object’s reentry time,” says Thomas G. Roberts, an adjunct fellow at the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.
This also depends on how well the structure of the booster holds up to heating caused by friction with the atmosphere. Some materials might hold up better than others, but drag will increase as the structure breaks up and melts. The flimsier the structure, the more it will break up, and the more drag will be produced, causing it to fall out of orbit more quickly. Some parts may hit the ground earlier or later than others.
By the morning of reentry, the estimate of when it will land should have narrowed to just a few hours. Several different groups around the world are tracking the booster, but most experts are following data provided by the US Space Force through its Space Track website. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, hopes that by the morning of reentry, the timing window will have shrunk to just a couple of hour where the booster orbits Earth maybe two more times. By then we should have a sharper sense of the route those orbits are taking and what regions of the Earth may be at risk from a shower of debris.
The Space Force’s missile early warning systems will already be tracking the infrared flare from the disintegrating rocket when reentry starts, so it will know where the debris is headed. Civilians won’t know for a while, of course, because that data is sensitive—it will take a few hours to work through the bureaucracy before an update is made to the Space Track site. If the remnants of the booster have landed in a populated area, we might already know thanks to reports on social media.
In the 1970s, these were common hazards after missions. “Then people started to feel it wasn’t appropriate to have large chunks of metal falling out of the sky,” says McDowell. NASA’s 77-ton Skylab space station was something of a wake-up call—its widely watched uncontrolled deorbit in 1979 led to large debris hitting Western Australia. No one was hurt and there was no property damage, but the world was eager to avoid any similar risks of large spacecraft uncontrollably reentering the atmosphere (not a problem with smaller boosters, which just burn up safely).
As a result, after the core booster gets into orbit and separates from the secondary boosters and payload, many launch providers quickly do a deorbit burn that brings it back into the atmosphere and sets it on a controlled crash course for the ocean, eliminating the risk it would pose if left in space. This can be accomplished with either a restartable engine or an added second engine designed for deorbit burns specifically. The remnants of these boosters are sent to a remote part of the ocean, such as the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area, where other massive spacecraft like Russia’s former Mir space station have been dumped.
Another approach which was, used during space shuttle missions and is currently used by large boosters like Europe’s Ariane 5, is to avoid putting the core stage in orbit entirely and simply switch it off a few seconds early while it’s still in Earth’s atmosphere. Smaller engines then fire to take the payload the short extra distance to space, while the core booster is dumped in the ocean.
None of these options are cheap, and they create some new risks (more engines mean more points of failure), but “it’s what everyone does, since they don’t want to create this type of debris risk,” says McDowell. “It’s been standard practice around the world to avoid leaving these boosters in orbit. The Chinese are an outlier of this.”
Why? “Space safety is just not China’s priority,” says Roberts. “With years of space launch operations under its belt, China is capable of avoiding this weekend’s outcome, but chose not to.”
The past few years have seen a number of rocket bodies from Chinese launches that have been allowed to fall back to land, destroying buildings in villages and exposing people to toxic chemicals. “It’s no wonder that they would be willing to roll the dice on an uncontrolled atmospheric reentry, where the threat to populated areas pales in comparison,” says Roberts. “I find this behavior totally unacceptable, but not surprising.”
McDowell also points to what happened during the space shuttle Columbia disaster, when damage to the wing caused the spacecraft’s entry to become unstable and break apart. Nearly 38,500 kilograms of debris landed in Texas and Louisiana. Large chunks of the main engine ended up in a swamp—had it broken up a couple of minutes earlier, those parts could have hit a major city, slamming into skyscrapers in, say, Dallas. “I think people don’t appreciate how lucky we were that there weren’t casualties on the ground,” says McDowell. “We’ve been in these risky situations before and been lucky.”
But you can’t always count on luck. The CZ-5B variant of the Long March 5B is slated for two more launches in 2022 to help build out the rest of the Chinese space station. There’s no indication yet whether China plans to change its blueprint for those missions. Perhaps that will depend on what happens this weekend.
A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry
China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.
The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.
The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals.
In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma.
Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas.
The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.
The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.
Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.
We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”
The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.
A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.
This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.
Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor, and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”
However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.
In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.
We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.
Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity.
Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.
Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.