EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated after confirmation of re-entry.
The 22-ton core stage of a Chinese rocket fell back to Earth Saturday, the third time in two years China has allowed such a large booster to re-enter the atmosphere uncontrolled. There were no immediate reports of wreckage or damage on the ground. Space debris experts said the unguided re-entry posed a low but avoidable risk to the world’s population.
The Long March 5B rocket took off July 24 with the Wentian module for China’s Tiangong space station, hauling one of the heaviest payloads launched into orbit in recent years. The nearly 100-foot-long (30-meter) core stage of the Long March 5B rocket fired its two hydrogen-fueled engines for about eight minutes to inject the Wentian module into orbit.
Four strap-on boosters burned their propellant and jettisoned a few minutes after launch to fall into the South China Sea. But the design of the Long March 5B, one of the most powerful operational rockets in the world, means its core stage accelerates to orbital velocity.
Most launchers carry an upper stage to finish the job of placing a payload into orbit, leaving the booster to fall back to Earth in the ocean or to be recovered for reuse, as SpaceX does with its Falcon 9 rocket.
U.S. Space Command, which tracks objects in orbit, confirmed the Long March 5B rocket stage re-entered the atmosphere around 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT). The China Manned Space Agency said in a statement that any surviving debris from the rocket fell into the Sulu Sea around 9.1 degrees north latitude and 119 degrees east longitude.
Multiple posts on social media, including the one below, showed what appeared to be debris from the Long March 5B rocket burning up in the atmosphere. The tweet below shows a video captured in Kuching, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
— Nazri sulaiman (@nazriacai) July 30, 2022
There were no immediate reports of any debris landing near populated areas, but the unguided re-entry raised concerns about China’s practices for disposal of space junk.
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement Saturday.
“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,” Nelson said. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.”
The Long March 5B rocket’s orbit took it between 41.5 degrees north and south latitude during each hour-and-a-half lap around Earth. The land between those latitudes is home to about 88% of the world’s population.
“It’s low risk on a global scale, but it’s unnecessary risk, and it can affect…