Debris from China’s biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday following one of the biggest uncontrolled re-entries into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Most of the rocket’s components were destroyed upon re-entry, ending days of speculation over where the debris would land. Chinese state media reported that the China Manned Space Engineering Office had located the point of impact as being to the west of the Maldives archipelago.

The 21-tonne Long March 5B blasted off from China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on April 29 carrying the core module to China’s new Tianhe Space Station. Unlike most rocket launches, Long March 5B went into orbit along with the module which will provide the main accommodation for China’s astronauts.

US Space command, which had been tracking the rocket, confirmed it had re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unknown if the debris impacted land or water. The Long March was the second rocket of its kind to be deployed. In May 2020, metal debris from pieces the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast causing damage to several buildings.

China “failing to meet responsible standards” – NASA

Following the re-entry of the Long March 5B, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut, said: “Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

The US has criticised China for a lack of transparency on the rocket’s re-entry. Nelson added: “It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”

Prior to the re-entry, Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the rocket would most likely end up in the ocean but the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

A spokesman at China’s foreign ministry said after the launch that it was common global practice for upper stages of rockets to burn up while re-entering the atmosphere, making the likelihood of damage extremely low. Ten more missions into space are planned to complete the Tianhe Space Station by 2022.

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