Debris From China’s Uncontrolled Rocket Crashed Near Populated Areas

Debris From China’s Uncontrolled Rocket Crashed Near Populated Areas
The Long March 5B rocket prior to launch. (Photo: Liu Huaiyu, AP)

Reports of fallen space junk are pouring in from parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, suggesting debris from China’s out-of-control rocket reached land — including areas perilously close to homes.

The 30.48 m-long (30-metre) core stage fell back to Earth on Saturday, July 30, after having spent just six days in low Earth orbit. The precise time and location of the rocket’s return remained vague even during the hours and minutes leading up to the reentry, but the sudden flood of sightings from Indonesia and Malaysia made it clear that the core stage broke up above the northern coast of Borneo. The Long March 5B core stage (CZ-5B) moved in a northeasterly direction and in a straight line that stretched from Sarawak through to the Sulu Sea just west of Palawan Island in the western Philippines.

There are no reports of injuries or property damage, but there are reports of debris having crashed onto parts of Kalimantan, Indonesia and Sarawak, Malaysia. An estimated 20% to 40% of the 23 T core stage likely survived reentry, according to The Aerospace Corporation. The wayward rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere shortly before 1:00 a.m. local time, creating a spectacular nighttime spectacle that many observers mistook for a meteor shower.

Disturbingly, some of this debris landed near populated areas. “No casualties or property damage reported, but debris is near villages and a few hundred meters either way could have been a different story,” tweeted Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

At the village of Pengadang in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, police set up barricades around suspected debris and asked that people not approach the fallen object. A similar scene played out in the small town of Batu Niah in Sarawak, Malaysia, as the debris sparked radiation fears. An inspection of a metallic object conducted by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board showed that the fallen object “had shown no radiation,” as reported in the Borneo Post. Images showed a cylindrical object embedded around one foot deep into the soft earth.

Launched on July 24, the Long March 5B rocket entered into a rapidly decaying orbit after successfully delivering China’s Wentien module to space. As on two previous occasions, the rocket’s uncontrolled core stage returned to Earth, threatening human life and property.

In a statement, NASA administrator Bill Nelson criticised China for not sharing specific trajectory information during the rocket’s return, saying: “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”

We’ll likely go through this for a fourth time in October, when China launches another Long March 5B rocket on a mission to deliver the Mengtian module to the nation’s Tiangong space station.