An uncontrolled Chinese Long March 5B rocket entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean and crashed somewhere near Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, reports The Verge.
The US Space Command confirmed the return of the rocket, but it remains unclear where its debris fell. In a translated Weibo post, China’s Manned Space Agency said the rocket had re-entered the same area and that most of it had burned up on the way down. On July 24, China used a Long March 5B rocket to launch a laboratory module to its unfinished Tiangong space station. Unlike most rockets, the Long March 5B thrusts its first stage into orbit while delivering the payload. This part, which is more than 30 meters long and weighs 22 tons, revolves around the Earth for a while until it falls to Earth, unable to control its movement.
Uncertainty about where the missile would land spread around the world last week, with predictions that the rocket could land anywhere from Mexico to the southern tip of Africa. This is the third launch of China’s Long March 5B missile, marking its third uncontrolled landing. In 2020, China used the Long March 5B to deliver the Tiangong core module into space. Debris from the missile fell in Côte d’Ivoire, and although no one was reported injured, buildings were damaged. Last year, China launched its first lab module aboard the Long March 5B, pieces of which ended up in the Indian Ocean.
Malaysian users on Twitter recorded the fall of the rocket, believing it to be a meteor. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said debris from the rocket could end up near Sibu, Bintulu, or Brunei — three cities along Borneo’s northern coast — but said it was “unlikely” that it would hit a populated area.
Reentry looks to have been observed from Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia. Debris would land downrange in northern Borneo, possbily Brunei. [corrected] https://t.co/sX6m1XMYoO
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) July 30, 2022
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson responded to the uncontrolled landing with a statement on Twitter. “The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” Nelson writes. “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property”.
Unfortunately, this is not the last rocket that got out of control and fell to Earth. China plans to launch its third and final module to Tiangong with a Long March 5B in October and will use the rocket again in 2023 to launch a telescope.