China’s Long March 5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, blasts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 29, 2021 in Wenchang, Hainan Province of China.
VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images
Debris from a large Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, which said most parts had burned up on reentry.
The uncontrolled nature of the rocket’s fall to Earth had left experts concerned about the potential impact it could have on inhabited areas. Earlier in the week, some space trackers had predicted that it could have landed as far north as New York.
The Chinese agency said early Sunday that the rocket, called the Long March 5B, had re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time, landing at a location with coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north. That would put the impact location in the Indian Ocean, west of the Maldives archipelago.
“The vast majority of the device burned up during the reentry, and the landing area of the debris is around a sea area with the center at 2.65 degrees north latitude and 72.47 degrees east longitude,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement on its website.
U.S. Space Command said in a statement that the Long March 5B had re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. ET on May 8. “It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water,” it said.
The rocket was launched on April 29 at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China’s Hainan province. It measured 98 feet long and 16.5 feet wide, and it weighed 21 metric tons.
Its mission was to carry into orbit a module containing living quarters for a future Chinese space station. But after completing that task, the body of the rocket circled Earth in an uncontrolled manner before reentering the lower atmosphere.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press conference Friday that it was “common practice” across the world for the upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere.
WENCHANG, CHINA – APRIL 29 2021: A Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the Tianhe module for the Chinese space station, blasts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in south China’s Hainan province Thursday, April 29, 2021.
Barcroft Media | Barcroft Media | Getty Images
“China is following closely the upper stage’s reentry into the atmosphere. To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means that most of its parts will burn up upon reentry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” he said, according to a translation on the ministry’s website.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin bemoaned the negligence involved in the rocket’s fall to Earth and said Washington had no plans to shoot it down.
“I think this speaks to the fact that for those of us who operate in the space domain, that there is a requirement — there should be a requirement to — to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode, and make sure that we take those kinds of things into consideration as we plan and conduct operations,” he told reporters.
In a statement shortly after the debris landed, NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson said it was clear that China “is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” he said.
Indeed, it is common for rockets and pieces of space junk to fall back to Earth and experts say that the chances of actually being hit are very small. According to Reuters, parts from the first Long March 5B fell onto the Ivory Coast in Africa last year, damaging several buildings but with no reported injuries.