On April 29, China launched the first core module of the new Chinese Space Station aboard the Long March-5B rocket. Debris from the rocket made an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, and China's space administration announced most of the rocket disintegrated before crashing in the Indian Ocean just north of Maldives on May 8, reports Sophie Lewis for CBS News. However, it was unknown if the rocket's remnants impacted any of the Maldives' islands or water, reports Steven Lee Myers and Kenneth Chang for the New York Times.
After the 23-ton, Long March-5B rocket released the core module into space, the rocket itself should have fallen back to Earth's surface on a predetermined path back towards the ocean, reports CBS News. Instead, the rocket orbited Earth for 90 minutes at about 17,000 miles per hour. The velocity of the rocket's orbit made its landing point nearly unpredictable.
The rocket's tilt while in orbit meant that re-entry could have occurred as far north as Chicago, New York City, Rome, and Beijing and as far south as Chile and New Zealand, placing these areas in danger of the space junk's trajectory path, reports the Aerospace Corporation. Because of the slight possibility of the debris striking a populated area, the rocket was tracked around the globe for days, reports the New York Times. On social media, sightings of the rocket were reported in Israel and Oman.
The space junk's uncertain path drew criticism from NASA.
"Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. "It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities."
Objects such as satellites and rocket debris constantly fall out of orbit and burn up upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere before they can hit the surface. Still, larger pieces like the Long March 5B rocket can survive re-entry and pose a threat to inhabited areas, reports Jackie Wattles for CNN.
Usually, when rockets reach orbit, a "deorbit maneuver" is performed where a rocket's engines are used to drop the low point of its orbit so that rocket operators can choose where the debris can safely fall back to Earth, reports the Aerospace Corporation. This type of re-entry is called a controlled re-entry.
This incident is not China's first uncontrolled space debris re-entry. In 2018, China's prototype space station, Tiangong 1, crashed into the ocean in an uncontrolled re-entry. In 1978, the United States' first space station, NASA's Skylab, rained debris over western Australia during uncontrolled re-entry, reports CBS News.