Debris from out-of-control Chinese rocket crashes back to Earth over Indian Ocean

The Chinese rocket body reentered Earth's atmosphere on Saturday, just west of the Maldives, according to Chinese state media.

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Long March 5B rocket blasting off

The Long March 5B launched the China space station core module in April. The rocket later spiraled back to Earth.

China News Service/Getty

The discarded body of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket plowed through Earth's atmosphere Saturday night, making an uncontrolled reentry in the Indian Ocean, west of the Maldives. The US Pentagon had been tracking the rocket body since last week, but because of the unusual tumbling of the rocket body and its orbit, it had been difficult to predict where exactly the huge piece of space junk would fall back to the planet. 

Aerospace.org had also been tracking the rocket and, as of Saturday afternoon, predicted it would fall into the Pacific Ocean. According to University of Maryland astronomer Ye Quanzhi, the China National Space Administration confirmed on Weibo the booster had reentered at 7:24 p.m. PT Saturday.

The Weibo post reported that "most of the devices were ablated and destroyed during the re-entry into the atmosphere."

The United States Space Command gives slightly different timing for the reentry. It states "the Chinese Long March 5B reentered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT (7:15 p.m. PT) on May 8."

The rocket helped launch Tianhe, the core module in China's new, next-generation space station, on April 28. The space base is scheduled to be completed late in 2022 to serve as a scientific research outpost for China over the next decade, and it'll be the only other operational space habitat aside from the International Space Station. 

How did this happen?

Typically, what goes up, must come down.

Back in 2018, similar events took place when China's out-of-control Tiangong-1 space station reentered the atmosphere over the ocean near Tahiti. No one was injured, and the debris either burned up or found a new home on the floor of the south Pacific.

When space agencies launch large rockets, they typically don't reach orbit -- they're designed to fall back into the ocean. Other times, rockets and satellites have built in mechanisms to deliberately deorbit them and guide them back to Earth safely. Many have been deliberately tossed into the so-called "spacecraft cemetery," a huge, uninhabited area of the Pacific Ocean. It's one of the furthest locations on the planet from any land. 

The rocket that carried Tianhe made it into orbit and once its engines shut down, was captured by Earth's gravity. Drag on the rocket sees its orbit slowly decay. Each rotation around the Earth brings it closer to a point where it ultimately slams into the atmosphere at speed -- "reentry" -- and burns up.  

However, it's not just about what comes down. Space junk, discarded rocket boosters, scraps of metal and defunct satellites, can remain in orbit for years -- even decades. Almost 3,000 satellites are in orbit and remain in operation, but almost three times that amount are defunct. 

"As we've launched more and more satellites into space, the problem has gotten progressively worse," James Blake, an astrophysicist Ph.D. student at the University of Warwick studying orbital debris, told CNET last November.

On April 6, U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin said the US didn't "have a plan to shoot the rocket down" and hoped it would "land in a place where it won't harm anyone." 

After the reported re-entry on Sunday, NASA administrator Bill Nelson released a written statement critical of China. "Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," he wrote.

"It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris."

Want to see what it looked like before its fiery end? Gianluca Masi of Ceccano, Italy, managed to capture an image, which he shared on his Virtual Telescope Project 2.0 website.

At the time the image was taken, "the rocket stage was at about 700 kilometers (434.9 miles) from our telescope, while the sun was just a few degrees below the horizon, so the sky was incredibly bright," Masi wrote. "This is huge debris (22 tons, 30 meters/98 feet long and 5 meters/16 feet wide), but it is unlikely it could create serious damage."

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