Uncontrolled debris from a massive Chinese launch vehicle plummets back to Earth, arriving over the Indian Ocean


Debris from a massive Chinese launch vehicle has returned to Earth, according to US Space Command on Saturday. The former rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean at approximately 12:45 p.m. EDT.

There was no immediate report of debris or damage caused by the missile’s uncontrolled return.

Before his arrival, the Aerospace Society had said it would likely burn up on return, but there was a small risk fragments would cause damage or casualties. The company also could not predict the exact point of re-entry or how much damage could be done.

The booster, which China refused to redirect through the atmosphere, caught the attention of 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 where three astronauts are currently staying.

According to Aerospace Corporation researchers, “there is a non-zero probability that the surviving debris will end up in a populated area – over 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the potential debris footprint of reentry.”

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

China has previously allowed rocket stages to fall back to Earth on their own on at least two occasions and was accused by NASA last year of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” Parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this week, a Chinese cargo spacecraft that largely served the country’s permanently orbiting space station burned on re-entry into the atmosphere. Only small parts of the Tianzhou-3 ship survived to crash safely into a pre-determined area in the South Pacific on Wednesday, the China Manned Space Agency said.

China launches Wentian Lab module
A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China’s Wentian space station laboratory module launches from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang, Hainan province of China, July 24, 2022.

VCG/VCG via Getty Images

2018, tian gong 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 crashed into the atmosphere and eventually landed near the west coast of Africa.

China also drew criticism after it used a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites in 2007, leaving a massive debris field.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed such concerns.

“Since the development phase of the space engineering program, China has considered debris mitigation and return from orbit to the atmosphere of missions that launched rocket carriers and satellites into orbit,” Zhao said at a daily briefing on Wednesday.

“It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special engineering design, in which most of the components are burned and destroyed during the re-entry process,” Zhao said. “The possibility of causing damage during airborne activities or on the ground is extremely small.”

The most significant reentry collapse over a populated area was the Shuttle Columbia, which flew in in February 2003. When the 200,000-pound spacecraft broke apart over Texas, a significant amount of debris hit the ground, but there were no injuries.

When Skylab reentered in 1978, debris fell over Western Australia but no injuries were reported.

William Harwood and Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.

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