China’s uncontrolled Long March 5B rocket fell into the Indian Ocean

The countdown now begins for China's next uncontrolled rocket reentry in October.
Chris Young
Space debrisdottedhippo/iStock
  • China's Long March 5B rocket crashed into the Indian Ocean in an uncontrolled reentry over the weekend.
  • NASA's Bill Nelson criticized China's space practices, citing a "risk of loss of life and property".
  • China will launch another Long March 5B to orbit in October.

China's Long March 5B rocket core stage reentered Earth's atmosphere on Saturday, July 24.

One Twitter user, Nazri Sulaiman, initially thought the rocket was a meteor, though they later corrected their post on social media. Sulaiman captured the rocket on camera as it was burning up on reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

The footage was captured in the skies above Kuching, Malaysia. Around the same time, U.S. Space Command confirmed the Long March 5B reentered the atmosphere at 12:45 ET and fell into the Indian Ocean.

China's controversial rocket reentries

The rocket reentry sparked controversy as China's Long March 5B rocket doesn't have the capability to reignite its rockets after launch for a controlled reentry. Instead, the rocket's core stage goes orbital after launch. It then stays in orbit for a few days before crashing into Earth. The most likely outcome is always that the rocket will largely burn up and fall over one of Earth's oceans. However, in 2020, parts of a Long March 5B rocket fell onto private property on the Ivory Coast. In May last year, another Long March 5B core stage landed in the Indian Ocean.

Last week's reentry came after China launched part of its Tiangong space station to orbit on July 24. In an interview with IE shortly after the launch, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, operated by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, explained there was "a small risk of property damage from a few tons of metal flying through the air at 100 mph or more."

There was also "a very low but nonzero chance of a casualty or two," he added.

'All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices'

Since 1990, the U.S. hasn't allowed any spacecraft or object over 10 tons to make an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere for the safety of people and property on the ground. After Saturday's reentry, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted, "the People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth. 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."

Unfortunately, we're soon in for a repeat of last week's uncontrolled reentry. In October, China will use the Long March 5B rocket to carry the third and final part of its space station to orbit. In 2023, it will also use the launch vehicle to send its Xuntian space telescope to the same orbit as its space station. China, for the most part, dismisses the controversy around its space practices as part of a smear campaign orchestrated by the West. Still, the criticism will likely continue until it shares more data, or retrofits its Long March 5B rockets with the technology required for controlled reentries.

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