Debris believed to be from a Chinese launch vehicle that returned to Earth unchecked on Saturday was reportedly found meters from villages in Malaysia and Indonesia.
A charred metal ring about five meters in diameter was found in Kalimantan, Indonesia, on Sunday, according to a Malaysian news outlet. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the metal appeared to be the exact size of the Chinese rocket’s core stage.
“It looks like the end cap of a rocket stage fuel tank,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it came from the rocket…it’s in the right place at the right time and looks like it came from the right kind of rocket.”
The Long March 5B unmanned rocket carried the second of three modules to complete the Tiangong space station. Earlier in the week China said it was closely tracking the debris and said it posed little risk.
But Aerospace Corp, a state-funded nonprofit research center near Los Angeles, said it was reckless to let the rocket’s entire core stage return to Earth unchecked.
On Saturday, the Nasa administrator Bill Nelson also rebuked China for not sharing information about the rocket’s descent, calling it irresponsible and risky. “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices and do their part to share this type of information in advance to enable reliable predictions of the potential risk of debris impact, particularly for heavy-duty vehicles like the Long March 5B, which pose a significant risk.” entail loss of life and property.”
The warning came two years after fragments of a Chinese Long March 5B damaged several buildings in Ivory Coast. No injuries were reported.
On Sunday, local media reported that two families were evacuated from their homes in Sarawak, Malaysia, over radioactivity concerns after a piece of debris believed to be from the Tiangong missile was found nearby.
The report showed a piece of metal wedged half a meter into the ground. The Malaysian Space Agency and Atomic Energy Licensing Board were investigating the incident along with local police.
Related: As more and more space debris falls to Earth, will China clean up its act?
McDowell said it was difficult to tell from the quality of the photo whether the image was debris from the missile, but he was confident several pieces had landed near the Indonesian and Malaysian borders because of numerous local There have been media reports of people finding suspicious metal objects.
The discovery was made a day after people in Sarawak posted images of debris lighting up the night sky as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere. “At first we thought it was a shooting star,” said Aizul Sidek, who was taking pictures with his smartphone in Kuching, Sarawak.
Another resident told local media he was surprised at around 12:40 a.m. by a thunderous noise and tremors that shook his home.
McDowell said most spacefaring nations have developed rockets to avoid uncontrolled re-entry. There is no international law mandating this, he said, but avoiding the risk was imperative after parts of NASA’s Skylab space station fell from orbit and landed in the Australian outback in 1979.
He said that of the six largest space-age uncontrolled re-entry, three are recent Chinese rockets.
“It really shows that they’re different from what other countries are doing these days… we saw in the ’70s that 20-30 ton things are rented out [re-enter uncontrolled] was a bad idea.
“During the 60 years of the space age, there was damage from rockets, but no real casualties. We want it to stay that way,” McDowell said. “China is emerging as one of the leading space powers, and so we need to find a way to bring them into the family of space nations and hopefully encourage them to adopt those norms.”