Uncontrolled wreckage of massive Chinese rocket booster falls back to Earth, landing in Indian Ocean

Debris from a massive Chinese rocket booster reached Earth on Saturday, according to the US Space Command. The old rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean at around 12:45 pm EDT.

There were no immediate reports of any debris or damage from the rocket’s uncontrolled return.

#USSPACECOM can confirm that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45am MDT on 7/30. We refer you to the #PRC for more details on the technical aspects of re-entry, such as possible debris dispersion + impact location.

— US Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) July 30, 2022

Prior to its arrival, the Aerospace Corporation had said it was likely to burn up on return, but there was a slight risk that the fragments would cause damage or casualties. The corporation also could not predict the exact point of re-entry or how much damage might be done.

The booster, which China decided not to guide back through the atmosphere, caught the attention of the space community. It was part of the massive 23-ton Long March 5B-Y3 rocket, China’s most powerful, that carried the Wentian Module to the station, on which three astronauts currently reside.

According to researchers at The Aerospace Corporation, “there is a non-zero probability that surviving debris will land in a populated area: more than 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the potential debris footprint of re-entry.”

Although China is not alone in these practices, the size of the Long March’s rocket stage has drawn particular scrutiny.

China has allowed rocket stages to return to Earth on their own at least twice before, and NASA was accused last year of “failing to meet responsible standards for its space debris” after parts of A Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this week, a Chinese cargo spacecraft servicing the country’s permanently orbiting space station largely burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere. Only small parts of the Tianzhou-3 spacecraft survived to land safely in a predetermined area in the South Pacific on Wednesday, China’s Manned Space Agency said.

A Y3 Long March-5B rocket carrying the Laboratory Module of China’s Wentian Space Station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on July 24, 2022, in Wenchang, Hainan Province of the china VCG/VCG via Getty Images

In 2018, Tiangong 1, China’s missing space station, re-entered out of control and landed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In 2020, another Long March-5B rocket fell into the atmosphere and eventually landed near the west coast of Africa.

China also came under heavy criticism after it used a missile to destroy one of its missing weather satellites in 2007, creating a massive debris field.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed those concerns.

“Since the development stage of the space engineering program, China has taken into account the mitigation of debris and the return from orbit to the atmosphere of missions involving rocket carriers and satellites sent to orbit,” Zhao said at a daily briefing on Wednesday.

“It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special technical design that most of the components will burn up and be destroyed during the re-entry process,” Zhao said. “The possibility of causing damage to aviation or ground activities is extremely low.”

The largest reentry breakup in a populated area was the space shuttle Columbia’s reentry in February 2003. When 200,000 pounds of spacecraft broke up over Texas, a significant amount of debris hit the ground, but did not to have injured

Similarly, when Skylab re-entered in 1978, debris fell over Western Australia, but no injuries were reported.

William Harwood and Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.


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