What’s left of the giant Chinese rocket that spun out of control has returned to the planet.
The 23-ton main part of the Long March 5B rocket landed back on Earth on Saturday night (May 8th), ending 10 controversial days in which the world watched with little attention. The incident sparked a broader debate about spider debris and its responsibilities for space travel.
Long March 5B re-entered the atmosphere of the Arabian Peninsula at 22:15 EDT (Sunday, May 9, 2:15 AM GMT), according to U.S. Space Command.
“It is not known whether the debris affected land or water,” Space Command officials wrote in a brief update Saturday night.
Some analysts, however, have identified a wet grave for rocket hulls that have managed to survive even in the intense heat of re-entry. For example, Space-Track.org wrote on Twitter Saturday night that Long March “fell into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives,” an idyllic island chain off India’s southwest coast.
Long March 5B launched the base module for China’s new space station on April 28. But when it was done, the first stage of the rocket, which was supposed to land safely in the ocean, reached orbit and, after feeling enough atmospheric drift, became a space junk waiting to hit its home planet.
And it wasn’t an isolated incident. The same thing happened last year in a different Long March 5B core that fell uncontrollably over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa. Some large pieces of debris from the re-entry landed in Ivory Coast, but no injuries were reported.
In addition, Tiangong 1, china’s prototype space laboratory designed to help pave the way for the new space station, became a space junk after completing its mission. The 8-ton ship burned over the Pacific Ocean and crashed uncontrollably to Earth in April 2018.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and satellite tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, only three man-made objects heavier than these two Long March 5B cares fell uncontrollably from space.
The three are the 83-ton Skylab space station that crashed in Australia in July 1979; The 50-ton upper stage of the Saturn V rocket, which launched Skylab over the Atlantic Ocean west of Madeira in January 1975; and the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station and the Kosmos-1686 module, which together weighed about 43 tons, re-entered The Earth via Argentina in February 1991. (Unfortunately, the Columbia space shuttle can also be considered here; the 117-ton orbiter disintegrated during re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.)
Many in the space community have criticized China’s Long March 5B events, accusing the country’s space program of being reckless, if not reckless. Such an accusation came Saturday from new NASA chief Bill Nelson.
“Space travel countries should minimize the risks of re-entry of space objects to people and property on Earth and maximize transparency about these operations,” Nelson wrote before the rocket crashed.
“It is clear that China does not meet responsible standards for space debris,” he said, adding: “It is critical that China and all nations and commercial organizations that travel through space act responsively and transparently in space to ensure the stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities.”