Long March 5B rocket re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, debris ‘burned beyond recognition’

  • China’s space agency launched the rocket to take into orbit the main module of its permanent space station, Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony
  • This isn’t the first space junk worry in 2021: in March, debris fell to the US from a SpaceX craft
Associated Press |

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The Long March 5B rocket took off from Hainan on April 29. Photo: TNS

If you were watching the skies, waiting for signs of falling spaceship, you can stop. China’s space agency said a core segment of its biggest rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and that most of it burned up early on Sunday morning.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracked the tumbling rocket part, said on Twitter, “An ocean re-entry was always statistically the most likely. It appears China won its gamble … But it was still reckless.”

People in Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia reported sightings of the Chinese rocket debris on social media, with scores of users posting footage of the debris piercing the early dawn skies over the Middle East.

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Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after lift-off, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

China’s official Xinhua News Agency later clarified that re-entry occurred on Sunday at 10.24am Beijing time.

“The vast majority of items were burned beyond recognition during the re-entry process,“ the report said.

Despite that, Nasa Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson issued a statement saying: “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

The roughly 30-metre long rocket stage is among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth. The mainland’s space programme, with its close military links, hasn’t said why it put the main component of the rocket into space rather than allowing it to fall back to Earth soon after discharging its payload, as is usual in such operations.

The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of China’s first permanent space station – Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony – into orbit on April 29. China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.

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An 18-tonne rocket that fell last May was the heaviest debris to fall uncontrolled since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first-ever space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere. Both had been briefly occupied by Chinese astronauts as precursors to China’s permanent station, now under construction.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by US aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

China was heavily criticised after sending a missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite in January 2007, creating a large field of hazardous debris endangering satellites and other spacecraft.