BEIJING — China’s space agency said a core segment of its biggest rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and that most of it burned up early Sunday.
Parts of the rocket landed in the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives, Chinese officials reported.
What You Need To Know
- The core segment of China's biggest rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean
- Parts of the rocket landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, Chinese officials reported
- There was a small chance debris from the rocket could have hit New York, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Madrid or Beijing, though astronomers noted a water landing was more likely
- NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson criticized China's response to the situation, accusing the country of "failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris"
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.
Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency later clarified that reentry occurred Sunday at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time (10:24 p.m. ET). “The vast majority of items were burned beyond recognition during the reentry 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.”
"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," Nelson continued.
There was a small chance debris from the rocket could have hit New York, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles, Madrid or Beijing, though astronomers noted a water landing was more likely.
"An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely," astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote on Twitter. "It appears China won its gamble ... but it was still reckless."
The roughly 100-foot long rocket stage is among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth. China’s space program, 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.
An 18-ton 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 U.S. aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.
China was heavily criticized after sending a missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite in January 2007, creating a large field of hazardous debris imperiling satellites and other spacecraft.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.