China's Rocket Debris Crashes Back to Earth, Lands in the Indian Ocean Near the Maldives

The Chinese Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of the Tianhe space station into orbit on April 29, and began falling back to Earth without being subjected to a controlled demolition

Long March-5B Y2 rocket
Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty

A large portion of a Chinese space rocket that began falling uncontrollably back to Earth has finally crashed.

Debris landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, China's space administration announced according to the New York Times, which reported that the bulk of its components was destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

"U.S. Space Command can confirm the Chinese Long March 5B re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT on May 8. It is unknown if the debris impacted land or water," the U.S. Space Command said in a statement.

The coordinates, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office, located the point of impact west of the Maldives archipelago, Reuters reported.

The rocket carried the main module of the Tianhe space station into orbit on April 29, the Associated Press reported.

The 23-ton section of the Long March 5B rocket captured the attention of the U.S. government and curious astronomers after researchers had difficulty pinpointing where its wreckage would crash.

While rockets flown into space are typically guided into Earth's atmosphere to burn up in a controlled demolition, the Long March 5B did not go through that process, according to the AP.

While there was some concern that the rocket could pose a threat to humans, officials agreed it would most likely end up somewhere in the ocean.

Long March-5B Y2 rocket
Hua Jiajun/VCG via Getty

"We're hopeful that it will land in a place where it won't harm anyone," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said ahead of the space debris reentry, according to BBC. "Hopefully in the ocean, or someplace like that."

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told CNN the chance anyone would have been hit by the wreckage was small.

"I don't think people should take precautions," he said before the crash. "The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis," he said.

"There are much bigger things to worry about," McDowell added.

McDowell, who works at the Center for Astrophysics, said the rocket was traveling at a blistering 18,000 miles per hour, which made it difficult for researchers to estimate where it would enter Earth's atmosphere.

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McDowell also criticized the Chinese government for their handling of the situation.

"I think it's negligent of them," he told the New York Times. "I think it's irresponsible."

While the chances of the debris hurting or killing anyone were slim, there have been close calls in the past.

According to LiveScience, a Chinese rocket re-entering Earth's atmosphere in May 2020 only partially burned up when making its descent. The South China Morning Post said some of the rocket's debris crashed into inhabited villages in the Ivory Coast, but no deaths were reported.

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