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Chinese rocket re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, disintegrates over Indian Ocean near Maldives


Beijing: According to Chinese state media, remnants of China’s largest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday (May 9, 2021), with the majority of its components destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, putting an end to days of speculation about where the debris would land.

The point of impact, according to state media citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office, was in the ocean west of the Maldives archipelago.

Some people have been looking up at debris from the Long March 5B since it blasted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29, but the China Manned Space Engineering Office said most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere.

Parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north, according to state media.

The United States Space Command confirmed the rocket’s re-entry over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unclear whether the debris impacted land or water.

“The precise location of the impact and the span of debris, both of which are unknown at this time,” US Space Command said in a statement on its website.

The Long March was the 5B variant’s second deployment since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, fragments of the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, causing damage to several buildings. There were no reported injuries.

Experts believe that because water covers the majority of the Earth’s surface, the chances of a populated area on land being hit are low, and the likelihood of injuries is even lower.

However, uncertainty about the rocket’s orbital decay, as well as China’s failure to provide stronger assurances in the run-up to the re-entry, fueled concern.

During the rocket’s flight, Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the 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.

Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit and landed in Australia in July 1979, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through spacecraft design, according to McDowell.

“The fact that the Chinese rocket designers did not address this makes them look lazy,” said McDowell, a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Concerns that the rocket is “out of control” and could cause damage were dismissed as “Western hype” by the Global Times, a Chinese tabloid published by the official People’s Daily.

“It is common practise around the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, during a regular media briefing on May 7.

“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated,” Wang said at the time. “This means that the majority of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low.”

The rocket, which launched an unmanned Tianhe module containing living quarters for three crew members on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by ten more missions to complete the station by 2022.

Heavy-lifting Long March 5 rockets have been critical to China’s near-term space ambitions, from delivering modules and crew for the planned space station to launching exploratory probes to the Moon and Mars.

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