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China rocket debris lands in ocean, draws NASA criticism

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Debris from a massive Chinese booster rocket has arrived back to Earth on Saturday, according to the U.S. Space Command. The former rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere above the Indian Ocean at about 12:45 p.m. EDT.

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

Prior to its arrival, the Aerospace Corporation had said that it was likely to burn up on return, but there was a slight risk of fragments causing damage or casualties. The corporation also could not predict the exact point of reentry or how much damage could be done.

The booster, which China decided not to guide back through the atmosphere, drew attention from the space community. It was part of the massive 23-ton Long March 5B-Y3 rocket — China’s most powerful — that carried the Wentian module to the station, aboard which three astronauts currently reside.

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

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

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 regarding their space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this week, a Chinese cargo spacecraft that serviced the country’s permanent orbiting space station largely burned up on reentering the atmosphere. Only small parts of the Tianzhou-3 ship survived to fall safely Wednesday into a predetermined area of the South Pacific, the China Manned Space Agency said.

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

China also drew heavy criticism after using a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites in 2007, creating a massive debris field.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected such concerns.

“Since the development stage of the space engineering program, China has taken into consideration the debris mitigation and return from orbit into atmosphere of missions involving rocket carriers and satellite sent into orbit,” Zhao said at a daily briefing Wednesday.

“It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special technical design that most of the components will be burnt up and destroyed during the reentry process,” Zhao said. “The possibility of causing damage to aviation activities or on the ground is extremely low.”

The most significant re-entry breakup over a populated area was the shuttle Columbia, which entered in February 2003. When 200,000 pounds of spacecraft broke up over Texas, a significant amount of debris hit the ground, but there were no injuries.

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

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