Thursday, December 2News That Matters

Plunging back to earth: Chinese rocket makes re-entry

China says debris of Long March 5B landed in Indian Ocean and that most of it was burned up in the atmosphere.

Remnants of China’s largest rocket, launched last week, plunged back through the atmosphere on Sunday, landing at a location of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north, placing it close to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

The 18-tonne remnants of the Long March 5B rocket re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at 10.24 am Beijing time (02:24 GMT), Chinese state media reported, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office.

Most of the debris was burnt up in the atmosphere, it said.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday that the re-entry and was highly unlikely to cause any harm.

US and European authorities had been closely monitoring the rocket, which was travelling at a speed of approximately 4.8 miles (13.7km) per second.

A difference of just one minute in the time of re-entry translates to hundreds of miles difference on the ground and predictions earlier put it landing in locations from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific.

The Long March 5B – comprising one core stage and four boosters – lifted off from China’s Hainan island on April 29 with the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station.

The rocket is set to be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station.

Visitors walk through a model of China’s Tianhe space station at an exhibition on the development of China’s space exploration last month [Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

Most experts said the risk to people from the reentry was low.

“Given the size of the object, there will necessarily be big pieces left over,” said Florent Delefie, an astronomer at the Paris-PSL Observatory.

“The chances of debris landing on an inhabited zone are tiny, probably one in a million.”

In May 2020, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China. In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.

The remains of the rocket make up one of the largest pieces of space debris to return to Earth.

The core stage of the first Long March 5B that returned to Earth last year weighed nearly 20 tonnes, surpassed only by debris from the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, and NASA’s Skylab in 1979.