Uncontrolled debris from huge Chinese booster rocket tumbles back to Earth and lands over Indian Ocean

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The US Space Command says the debris from a huge Chinese booster rocket returned to Earth on Saturday. The former rocket returned to Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean around 12:45 a.m. EDT.

There was no immediate report of any debris or damage caused by the rocket’s uncontrolled return.

Prior to his arrival, the Air and space company had said it would likely burn on its return, but there was a small risk that fragments would cause damage or casualties. The company also couldn’t predict the exact point of return or how much damage could be done.

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The booster, which China decided not to return through the atmosphere, caught the attention of the space community. It was part of the massive 23-ton Long March 5B-Y3 rocket — China’s most powerful — that brought the Wentian module to the station, which currently houses three astronauts.

According to researchers at The Aerospace Corporation, “there is a non-zero chance of the surviving debris landing in a populated area — more than 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the potential debris footprint of the return.”

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While China is not alone in such practices, the size of the Long March rocket stage has attracted particular attention.

China has allowed rocket stages to fall back to Earth on their own at least twice before, and was accused by NASA last year of “failing to meet responsible standards with regard to their space debris” after parts of a Chinese missile landed in the Indian Ocean.

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Earlier this week, a Chinese cargo spacecraft largely served the country’s permanently orbiting space station. burned when re-entering the atmosphere. Only small parts of the Tianzhou-3 ship survived to fall safely in a predetermined area of ​​the South Pacific on Wednesday, the China Manned Space Agency said.

China Launches Wentian Lab Module
A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China’s space station laboratory module Wentian will launch from the Wenchang spacecraft launch site on July 24, 2022 in Wenchang, Hainan Province.

VCG/VCG via Getty Images


in 2018, Tiangong 1, China’s defunct space station, made an uncontrolled return and landed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In 2020, another Long March-5B rocket fell into the atmosphere, eventually landing near the west coast of Africa.

China also faced heavy criticism after it used a missile in 2007 to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites, creating a huge field of debris.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed such concerns.

“Since the development phase of the space program, China has considered the reduction of debris and reentry from orbiting missions that have sent rocket carriers and satellites into orbit,” Zhao said during a daily briefing on Wednesday.

“Obviously, this type of missile has a special engineering design where most of the components will be burned and destroyed during the reentry process,” Zhao said. “The chance of damage to aviation activities or to the ground is extremely small.”

The most significant return breakup over a populated area was the shuttle Columbia, which entered in February 2003. When 200,000 pounds of spacecraft disintegrated over Texas, a significant amount of debris fell to the ground, but no one was injured.

Similarly, when Skylab re-entered in 1978, debris fell over Western Australia, but no injuries were reported.

William Harwood and Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.