Chinese missile debris has fallen to earth over the Indian and Pacific Oceans, US and Chinese officials say.
China’s space agency said most of Long March 5’s remains burned up in the atmosphere, and identified the Sulu Sea in the Pacific as the site of reentry.
Previously, space experts said the chances of the rocket landing in a populated area were extremely slim.
The uncontrolled return of the rocket’s core stage has raised questions about responsibility for space debris.
Earlier, Nasa had asked the Chinese space agency to design rockets that break up into smaller pieces upon re-entry, as is the international norm.
In a tweet, US Space Command said that Long March 5 “reentered over the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 am MDT [16:45 GMT] on 30.7″.
She referred her readers to the Chinese authorities for more details.
Meanwhile, China’s space agency gave reentry coordinates as 119 degrees east longitude and 9.1 degrees north latitude. This corresponds to an area in the Sulu Sea – east of the Philippine island of Palawan in the North Pacific.
The latest rockets bound for China’s unfinished space station, called Tiangong, lack controlled re-entry capability.
The latest launch occurred last Sunday when the Long March 5 rocket carried a laboratory module to Tiangong Station. The Chinese government said on Wednesday that the missile’s re-entry would not pose a low risk to anyone on the ground as it would most likely end up in the sea.
However, there was a possibility that parts of the rocket could fall over a populated area, as was the case in May 2020 when property was damaged in Ivory Coast.
Before the crash, the empty rocket body was in an elliptical orbit around Earth, where it was being dragged into an uncontrolled re-entry.
The construction of objects that decay upon re-entry into the atmosphere is becoming a priority for satellite operators. This is done in part through the use of materials with low melting point temperatures, such as aluminum.
In the case of rockets, this can get expensive because the materials used to house fuel, such as titanium, have historically required very high temperatures to burn. The sheer size of such objects is also an issue, particularly in the case of the Long March 5, which weighs in at over 25 tons.
The same Long March 5 configuration had previously been launched twice, once in May 2020 and again in May 2021, and carried different elements of the Tiangong station.
On both occasions, debris from the rocket’s “core stage” was dumped back onto Earth, Ivory Coast and the Indian Ocean. These followed a prototype that crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2018.
Neither of these incidents resulted in injuries, but drew criticism from a number of space agencies. On Tuesday, the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper accused Western media of a US-led smear campaign against the Long March 5th.
This latest launch delivered the second of three modules to the Chinese space station. The 17.9 m long Wentian Laboratory Module will be the first of two laboratories to join the station. China began building the space station in April 2021 with the launch of the Tianhe Module, the main living quarters.
China hopes Tiangong will be ready by the end of 2022.