Plunging back to Earth: Chinese rocket makes re-entry

Remnants of China’s largest rocket launched last month plunged back through the atmosphere on Sunday, landing west of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and ending days of speculation over where the debris would hit.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 [02:24 GMT] on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has reentered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement.

It added most of the components burned up in the re-entry.

US Space command confirmed the re-entry of the rocket over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unknown if the debris impacted land or water.

“The exact location of the impact and the span of debris – both of which are unknown at this time – will not be released by US Space Command,” it said on its website.

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, also confirmed the re-entry.

“Everyone else following the #LongMarch5B re-entry can relax. The rocket is down,” it tweeted.

“We believe the rocket went down in the Indian Ocean, but are waiting on official data from @18SPCS,” it added in a separate tweet, referring to a squadron of the US Space Force.

US and European authorities had been monitoring the rocket, which was travelling at a speed of 13.7km/second (4.8 miles/second).

A difference of just one minute in the time of re-entry translates to hundreds of kilometres difference on the ground and earlier predictions had the rocket landing in several possible locations from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

According to experts, with most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds that it would land in a populated area were low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower.

But uncertainty over the rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fuelled anxiety over its descent.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the re-entry was highly unlikely to cause any harm.

NASA criticism

The Long March 5B – comprising one core stage and four boosters – lifted off on April 29 from China’s Hainan Island with the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station.

The rocket is set to be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station.


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