Debris from uncontrolled Chinese missile falls over Southeast Asian seas

Debris from a large Chinese rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere at 12:45 p.m. Eastern Time over the Indian Ocean the US space command.

In an update posted on the social networking site WeiboChina’s manned space agency said most of the debris burned up on reentry over the Sulu Sea, a body of water between the island of Borneo and the Philippines.

The possibility, however remote, that debris from the missile could hit a populated area had people around the world tracking its trajectory for days.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a rebuke Saturday, saying that China “did not share specific trajectory information when its Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth.” He added that all countries “should share this type of information in advance to enable reliable predictions of the potential risk of debris impact, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles such as the Long March 5B, which pose a significant risk of loss of life and salvage property”.

The rocket Mr Nelson referred to in his statement launched last Sunday and carried into orbit a laboratory module that was added to China’s Tiangong space station. Usually, the large booster stages of rockets fall back to earth immediately after being dropped. But the 23-ton Long March 5B core stage accompanied the space station segment into orbit.

Due to the friction caused by the rocket’s friction with air at the top of the atmosphere, it soon began to lose altitude and made what is known as “runaway re-entry” back to Earth. For the past few days, space observers had been forecasting potential reentry over much of the planet. Over the past day, the forecast has become more accurate, but even then, meteorologists were unsure whether it would land over the Indian Ocean, off Mexico, or in the Atlantic.

People in Sarawak, a province of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, took to social media to report sightings of the missile debris, with many initially believing the pyrotechnics were one meteor shower or a comet.

This was the third flight of Long March 5B, China’s largest rocket. The country’s space program required such a large, powerful vehicle to carry parts into orbit for the assembly of its space station.

On its first test flight in 2020, it carried a reusable astronaut capsule into orbit with no crew on board. This booster fell on villages in Ivory Coast, West Africa, causing property damage but no injuries.

The second flight last year carried Tianhe, the main module of the new Tiangong space station, and landed in the Indian Ocean. This started added Wentian, the laboratory module.

The Long March 5B contained several parts. Four lateral boosters crashed shortly after launch, crashing harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean. (Disposing of used, unwanted rocket parts in the ocean is a common practice.) But the core booster stage — a 10-story cylinder weighing 23 tons empty — carried the Wentian module into orbit.

The installation of the lab furthers the progress of a second orbiting outpost where humanity will be able to conduct scientific research in a microgravity environment.

China plans to operate the new Tiangong station for at least a decade and invite other nations to participate. Tiangong is smaller than the aging International Space Station, which NASA’s current plans are to decommission in 2030, though Russia has given conflicting signs of how long it will be participating.

In recent decades, rocket stages that reach orbit typically re-ignite the engine after freeing their payloads, causing them to fall out of orbit and aim at an unoccupied area like the middle of an ocean.

Typically, 20 to 40 percent of a rocket or satellite survives re-entry, which would indicate 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of the Chinese booster would reach Earth’s surface.

Another laboratory module is scheduled to be launched on the same rocket in October to complete construction of the space station. A final mission of the rocket is planned for 2023, during which an orbital space telescope will be transported.

Experts say the rocket’s designers had alternatives to his approach. They could have stopped the booster before they reached orbit. It would then immediately fall back to Earth in the Pacific. But then they would have had to upgrade the space station module’s propulsion systems to get it the rest of the way into orbit.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who tracks space debris, suggested that the Chinese may have been able to pull a trick similar to what NASA engineers did with the Saturn 1B rocket more than 40 years ago. The Saturn 1B second stage was large and, like the Long March 5B booster, had no thrusters to control reentry.

“They actually did something clever in terms of fuel venting,” said Dr. McDowell. “They didn’t actually have rocket engine ignition, but they dumped the fuel in a way that lowered the perigee into the atmosphere.”

Li You contributed to the research.

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