NASA Criticizes China After Rocket Debris Burns Up, Falls Into Indian Ocean

May 9, 2021 Updated: June 3, 2021

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized China for creating unnecessary risks as an uncontrolled core segment of its biggest rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere and mostly burned up over the Maldives before landing in the Indian Ocean on May 9.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” the former senator said in a statement.

The return to Earth of the out-of-control space junk had raised fears that the debris could fall on populated areas and cause deaths and severe damage.

China’s space agency said that most of the 100-foot, about 40,000-pound rocket stage burned up during reentry. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said reentry occurred May 9 at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time.

“The vast majority of items were burned beyond recognition during the reentry process,” the report said.

People in Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia reported sightings of the Chinese rocket debris on social media, with scores of users posting footage of the segment piercing the early dawn skies over the Middle East.

“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely. It appears China won its gamble. … But it was still reckless,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracked the tumbling rocket part, said on Twitter.

Discarded rocket boosters usually reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.

The Chinese rocket booster is among the biggest pieces of space junk to fall to Earth. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) space program, with its close military links, hasn’t said why it put the main component of the rocket into space rather than allowing it to fall back to earth soon after releasing its payload, as is usual in such operations.

The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of China’s first permanent space station—Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony—into orbit on April 29. China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of the space station into orbit.

An 18-ton rocket that fell last May had been the heaviest debris to fall uncontrolled since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere. Both had been briefly occupied by Chinese astronauts as precursors to China’s permanent station now under construction.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by U.S. aeronautics firm SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

China was heavily criticized after sending a missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite in January 2007, creating a large field of hazardous debris that imperiled other satellites and spacecraft.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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