China’s space agency said a core segment of its biggest rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and that most of it burned up early yesterday.
Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracked the tumbling rocket part, wrote on Twitter: “An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely. It appears China won its gamble. But it was still reckless.”
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 re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and do not go into orbit.
The official Xinhua news agency later reported that re-entry occurred at 10:24am Beijing time.
“The vast majority of items were burned beyond recognition during the re-entry process,” the report said.
Despite that, NASA Administrator US Senator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying: “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
The roughly 30m-long rocket stage is among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.
China’s space program, with its close military links, has not 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-tonne rocket that fell in May last year 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.
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