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The Long March 5B rocket took off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan on April 29. Photo: Reuters

Remnants of China’s Long March 5B rocket land in Indian Ocean near the Maldives

  • Remnants splashed down at 10.24am Beijing time, China Manned Space Engineering Office says
  • US’ 18th Space Control Squadron confirms landing, no immediate reports of damage or casualties
The remnants of China’s Long March 5B rocket splashed down in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives on Sunday morning with no immediate reports of any damage or casualties, ending an anxious week as people and governments wondered where and when the space junk would fall.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office said the “great majority” of the debris burned up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 10.24am Beijing time, while the rest landed in an open sea area at 72.47 degrees east longitude and 2.65 degrees north latitude.

Those coordinates put the splash down in the Indian Ocean, close to the Maldives.

After the announcement, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard & Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the United States, tweeted that “it appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless”. tweeted that the 18 Space Control Squadron, an American operation that detects and monitors artificial objects in Earth’s orbit, confirmed the remnants of the Long March 5B rocket had fallen into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives.

The US Space Command said on Tuesday it was tracking the Chinese rocket and that the 18th Space Control Squadron was offering “daily updates to the rocket body’s location” via Space-Track. The confirmed re-entry put an end to days of nervous watching by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

“That’s all we have on this re-entry; thanks for the wild ride and 30K more followers. Good night!” Space-Track tweeted.

The outcome largely confirmed Beijing’s prediction that the rocket was unlikely to cause any harm when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on Friday that atmospheric burn-up made “the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low”.

But China’s efforts to ease global concerns did not stop the return of the Long March rocket grabbing headlines around the world. Last year, fragments of a similar Long March mission fell on the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings, though no one was hurt.


Debris from China’s Long March rocket lands in Indian Ocean, drawing criticism from Nasa

Debris from China’s Long March rocket lands in Indian Ocean, drawing criticism from Nasa

The rocket launched last week, carrying the core module for China’s Tiangong Space Station, blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the southern island province of Hainan.

The large rocket stage that de-orbited was more than 33 metres (108 feet) tall and weighed more than 20 tonnes, making it the sixth largest object to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, according to the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research organisation based in California.

Very little of the rocket stage’s mass survived re-entry, however, with the majority having burned up as it entered the Earth’s dense atmosphere at a speed of about 8km (five miles) per second.

China’s space programme has drawn criticism from aerospace experts and governments, including Washington, for allowing an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large rocket body.

“For those of us who operate in the space domain … there should be a requirement 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,” US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday.

Debris from a Chinese heavy-lift rocket might have hit Ivory Coast villages

Commonly, rocket stages are jettisoned closer to the Earth before they reach orbit, allowing for a more predictable trajectory as they fall. For those that do reach orbit, they can be equipped with additional engine firing capacity, allowing for a point of entry to be chosen that would steer any falling debris away from populated areas.

China opted for neither of those options with the Long March, leaving the depleted rocket stage in an elliptical orbit with no control capabilities.

The country’s space programme faced criticism last year, when a previous Long March mission resulting in debris being showered over northern Africa after a similar uncontrolled re-entry. Nasa’s then administrator Jim Bridenstine called the re-entry “really dangerous” and said it was lucky nobody was injured.

China’s space programme has drawn criticism for allowing an uncontrolled re-entry of such a large rocket body. Photo: AFP

Sunday’s re-entry has renewed attention on congestion in space, where there are believed to be more than 2,000 rocket bodies, all technically uncontrolled, orbiting Earth.

Of those, 1,035 are Russian, including some from the Soviet era, and 546 belong to the US, according to CelesTrak, a group that monitors orbital objects. China’s space programme trails behind at 170 bodies.

Rocket bodies constitute just a fraction of all objects in orbit. Nasa estimates there to be some 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth, and around half a million pieces bigger than a marble. While small, their high velocities mean they can cause severe damage upon collision with satellites and other spacecraft.

“The United States is committed to addressing the risks of growing congestion due to space debris and growing activity in space and we want to work with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviours,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese rocket comes down safely in Indian Ocean