The odds of a piece of space debris falling back to Earth and striking a person are extremely low. But it looks like a Chinese rocket nearly achieved the improbable.
Last week, China took a major step toward its goal of completing its own space station by 2022 when its Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket successfully launched a prototype of China’s new-generation manned spacecraft. By Monday, some people were talking about the rocket for a less celebratory reason.
In the re-entry of one of the largest pieces of uncontrolled space debris ever to fall back on Earth, the rocket’s core stage reportedly plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern coast of Africa. Then later reports suggested that parts of it might have hit two villages in the West African country Côte d'Ivoire.
According to local media reports, a large metal tube pierced the roof of a family’s home in the village of N’guinou. No one was reported to have been hurt. People in the village of Mahounou also reportedly found a 12-meter-long metal object after seeing it fall from the sky.
The objects haven’t been confirmed to be part of the Long March 5B rocket. But according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the affected villages were on the rocket’s re-entry track.
“When you have a big chunk of metal screaming through the upper atmosphere in a particular direction at a particular time, and you get reports of things falling out of the sky at that location, at that time, it’s not a big leap to connect them,” McDowell told The Verge.
McDowell also told the outlet that he found villagers reported hearing loud sonic booms and saw flashes at around the same time the Long March 5B was passing over them.
There’s no official information from Chinese media or state-run space organizations about the rocket’s re-entry to Earth. We reached out to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the organization under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation that made the Long March series rockets, but we didn’t receive a response.
It wouldn’t be the first time China’s rockets dropped parts on inhabited lands. Unlike the US, which conducts space launches at sea, three of China’s four launch sites are built inland, and launch debris has repeatedly hit Chinese villages. No casualties have been reported since the Long March 3B crashed in a Chinese village in 1996, killing six people and injuring dozens more.