May 09, 2021
There were fears China’s Long March 5B rocket body could fall on populated areas as it plunged back to Earth just over a week after it was launched into space carrying the Tianhe module
The Long March-5B rocket was carrying the core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, when it was launched. Image: VCG via Getty Images
By Chris Kitching, Andrew Galbraith, and Winni Zhou | The Mirror
Remnants of China’s biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean, with much of it destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, according to Chinese state media.
The coordinates given by state media, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office, put the point of impact in the ocean, west of the Maldives.
Debris from the Long March 5B has had some people looking warily skyward since shortly after it blasted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29, but the China Manned Space Engineering Office said most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere.
State media reported parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10.24am Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with the coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.
The Long March launched last week was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020.
Last year, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.
With most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds of populated area on land being hit had been low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower, according to experts.
But uncertainty over the rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fueled anxiety.
It is one of the largest space debris to re-enter Earth, at 18 tonnes.
On Friday, the Aerospace Corporation said its Center for Orbital Reentry and Debris Studies (CORDS) said its latest “informed prediction” of the rocket body’s re-entry location was given near the North Island of New Zealand.
However, it noted that re-entry was possible anywhere along paths covering large swathes of the globe.
In a blog post, the Aerospace Corporation said: “The Long March 5B re-entry is unusual because during launch, the first stage of the rocket reached orbital velocity instead of falling downrange as is common practice.
“The empty rocket body is now in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled re-entry.”
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell previously told Reuters there was a chance that pieces of the rocket could come down over land, perhaps in a populated area.
Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China.
In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.
The latest Long March rocket launched on April 29 was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May last year.
The empty core stage has been losing altitude since last week.
But the speed of its orbital decay remains uncertain due to unpredictable atmospheric variables.
The Long March 5 family of rockets have been integral to China’s near-term space ambitions – from the delivery of modules and crew of its planned space station to launches of exploratory probes to the moon and even Mars.
The core stage of the first Long March 5B that returned to Earth last year weighed nearly 20 tonnes, surpassed only by debris from the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, and NASA’s Skylab in 1979.