Pieces of a runaway Chinese rocket have rained down on the Indian Ocean, quelling fears it would hit people or property

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, China April 29, 2021.

  • An uncontrolled Chinese rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Indian Ocean Saturday.
  • The rocket had been hurtling towards Earth for a week, with no one knowing when or where it would land.
  • The landing quelled fears that debris from the rocket might have fallen on people or property.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Chinese rocket falling toward Earth at around 18,000 miles an hour reentered the atmosphere late Saturday, landing in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, China’s space agency reported, according to the South China Morning Post.

It was the 22.5-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station on April 28. For the last week, the 10-story-tall cylinder was hurtling around Earth uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. No space agency was certain when it would fall or where it would land.

Although the rocket stage ultimately landed in the ocean, there was a small chance it could have rained more than 5 tons of debris onto unsuspecting people or property.

As the rocket stage fell through Earth’s atmosphere, friction likely heated the surrounding air to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket stage likely fell apart in this heat and most likely burned up. But experts stressed that some parts could come through the heat intact.

The general rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that would be 5 to 9 metric tons of debris.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbing, said at a briefing on Friday that the rocket stage posed little threat, the Associated Press reported.

“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground,” Wang said.

Space debris experts agreed that any surviving pieces of the Long March 5B rocket stage were unlikely to hit inhabited areas, much less planes or boats. Most of the Earth consists of water and much of its land is uninhabited by people.

Still, the object’s orbit took it as far north as New York and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and southern Chile.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5b rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider last week.

It’s not clear whether this uncontrolled fall was an accident

The US Space Force and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, both tracked the rocket stage as it lost altitude.

“For those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement, to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Thursday, according to The Guardian.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.” China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage had fallen into orbit.

Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

Either way, Logsdon said, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China launched a Long March 5b once before, in May 2020, with the same outcome. That launch was a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit, and the rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled, six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

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A Long March-5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, stands at the launching area of the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23, 2021.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two more of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage to ensure it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive and may reduce how much cargo the rocket can carry.

Still, Logsdon is hopeful that China will change its future launch plans based on the international response to this one.

“China in 2007 did an anti-satellite test that created a lot of debris and created a lot of international criticism. And they have not repeated that kind of test since then,” Logsdon said. “So it’s conceivable that international pressure could influence the next couple of launches.”

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Somewhere on Earth, it could rain rocket parts this weekend as a runaway Chinese spacecraft breaks up in the atmosphere

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket
The Long March 5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station takes off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center in Hainan province, China, on April 29.

Sometime this weekend, somewhere on Earth, it’s probably going to rain rocket parts.

That’s because a 22.5-ton cylinder is hurtling around the planet uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. It’s the body of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station last week.

The rocket body is expected to fall to Earth sometime this weekend, most likely on Saturday. That’s according to projections from the US Space Force, Russia’s space agency, and the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research firm that receives US funding.

At this point, it is impossible to accurately estimate where the rocket stage will fall. Projections show it entering the atmosphere in a roughly 20-hour window. During that period, the rocket stage will circle Earth several times.

The spacecraft’s orbit takes it over a vast swath of the planet – from Los Angeles to New York to southern Europe to Beijing, down through most of Australia, Africa, and South America. Mostly, though, it will fly over oceans and uninhabited land.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5B rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

As the rocket stage falls through Earth’s atmosphere, friction will heat the surrounding air to roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket will likely fall apart in this heat, and parts of it may burn up, but other pieces may survive.

Experts estimate that more than 5 metric tons – 11,000 pounds – of rocket parts will rain down somewhere on Earth. That might include fuel tanks, thrusters, large parts of the rocket’s engines, and bits of metal and insulation.

Most likely, all that debris will land in the ocean.

“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small – not negligible, it could happen – but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal-threat basis,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting Earth, told CNN.

Still, this is an “unusual situation,” Logsdon said, and China might have some explaining to do.

‘China owes the international community an explanation’

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The Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.”

China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage was circling the planet and slowly losing altitude. Unlike most modern rocket stages, it had fallen into an unstable orbit. Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed. Chinese authorities have not offered an explanation.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

This rocket has launched once before, with the same outcome. China first launched the Long March 5B in May 2020, in a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit. That rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

Experts can only estimate how much of the rocket body will slam into the Earth. A rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that means 5 to 9 metric tons would reach the ground.

“This stage and its predecessor last May are the sixth- and seventh-largest objects to ever reenter,” Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees the Aerospace Corporation’s space-debris analysis, told Insider.

“The probability that a piece of space debris will land on a city or a densely populated area is usually relatively small,” he added. “But note that this reentry will occur between 41.5 degrees north and 41.5 degrees south latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world’s population lives.”

spacex starship explosion debris
Pieces of debris scattered near Boca Chica, Texas, after the explosion of an uncrewed prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket in March.

If any rocket parts land on people or their property, China could be on the hook for the damage. Under the 1972 Space Liability Convention treaty, the launching nation is liable for its rockets and any damage they cause.

“I hesitate to use the word irresponsible,” Logsdon said. “I would like a clearer understanding from the Chinese side of why this is happening.”

But he added, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch the Long March 5B rocket lifting off on April 29.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage so that it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive, according to Muelhaupt – it may require significantly altering the design or even cutting how much cargo the rocket can carry.

“Nevertheless, this is a best practice and is rapidly becoming a global norm,” he said.

Logsdon is hopeful that international pressure could influence China’s launch plans.

“One would hope that if indeed there is, as predicted, pieces that survive reentry, that there would be changes made in the Long March 5B for the next two launches,” he said. “We’ll see.”

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China is set to launch the first piece of its new space station on Wednesday night

china space station launch Long March-5B Y2 rocket
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, April 23, 2021.

  • China is set to launch the first module of its new space station as early as Wednesday night.
  • China plans to complete its space station with 11 launches, some involving astronaut crews, by 2022.
  • The rocket launch may be broadcast live in Mandarin and English.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China is planning to build its own space station, and it’s set to launch the first module as early as Wednesday night.

This core module, called Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” is currently tucked inside the nosecone of a Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang Launch Center on the island of Hainan. The rocket is “designed specifically for launching space-station modules,” according to Andrew Jones, a reporter covering China’s space program.

The rocket is scheduled to lift off during a one-hour window starting at 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday – which is noon on Thursday in China.

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A Long March-5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23, 2021.

This will be the Long March 5b’s second launch – its first was a test launch of a spaceship prototype.

US policy has effectively blocked China from sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and forbidden NASA from working with the nation.

China first started its independent human-spaceflight program in 1992. Three decades later, it’s beginning to build its own Earth-orbiting habitat. The country aims to complete the Chinese Space Station (CSS) by the end of 2022. Between now and then, it plans to launch 11 missions to carry three modules (including Tianhe), four cargo shipments, and four astronaut crews, according to The Associated Press.

The complete space station is set to weigh 66 tons, with enough room for three astronauts to live inside the Tianhe module. At least 12 Chinese astronauts are currently training for CSS stints, according to the AP.

The spacecraft for the first astronaut mission to the CSS is already being assembled, and the crew could launch as early as June, Jones reported for Space.com.

The overall plan for CSS calls for it to be significantly smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs about 450 tons and is roughly the length of a football field. As many as 13 people have been on the ISS at one time during mission overlaps.

Watch the Tianhe module launch live

State-controlled broadcaster CCTV may air the launch live with commentary in Mandarin. The China Global Television Network could also broadcast the launch in English on its Youtube channel, according to Jones.

china long march rocket launch tianwen-1 mars
The Long March 5 Y-4 rocket, carrying the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, takes off from China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center, July 23, 2020.

This wouldn’t be China’s first space station. It previously sent two experimental modules into orbit: The first, Tiangong-1, launched in 2011, and its successor, Tiangong-2, followed in 2016. The two space-station prototypes hosted a handful of Chinese astronauts before Tiangong-1 was abandoned, lost its orbit, then broke apart and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in 2018. A year later, China steered Tiangong-2 into the atmosphere to meet a similar fate.

A new space race

Russia has begun work on its own space station as well. Russian officials said last week that the country’s space agency aims to launch its core station module in 2025, and might eventually withdraw from the ISS.

Together, Russia and China are also co-developing a lunar research station, independent of NASA’s plans to build a lunar Gateway station. Both projects aim to establish a permanent human presence on the moon.

Meanwhile, on Mars, China is preparing to land a rover in a water-rich region of the red planet. The mission, called Tianwen-1, would be the first to deliver an orbiter, a lander, and a rover all together. All three robots reached Mars’ orbit in February and have been circling the planet since then. The lander and rover are poised to descend to its surface sometime in May.

If that mission succeeds, China will become the second country to successfully land on Mars.

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