The 21-tonne Long March 5B booster launched on 24 July to deliver a new module to China’s Tiangong space station. But unlike a reusable rocket booster that can make a powered descent, such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, the Long March rocket was left to tumble out of control until its orbit naturally degraded and it fell back to Earth.
That fall took place at around 12.45pm EDT Saturday, over the Indian Ocean near Malaysia, according to US Space Command.
#USSPACECOM can confirm the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approx 10:45 am MDT on 7/30. We refer you to the #PRC for further details on the reentry’s technical aspects such as potential debris dispersal+ impact location.
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) July 30, 2022
On Saturday, a number of Twitter accounts began sharing videos of what could be the rocket breaking up over Malaysia, but it has not been confirmed whether the footage is actually showing its remains.
Debris from Chinese rocket lit up night sky some parts of Malaysia. US space command confirm the development China's Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approx 10:45 am MDT on 7/30.pic.twitter.com/BIkjamFbTz
— Sidhant Sibal (@sidhant) July 30, 2022
What is known is that larger rocket boosters are massive enough that they typically do not burn up entirely during re-entry, with as much as 40 per cent of their mass reaching the ground, particularly heat-resistant components such as tanks and engine parts. This debris can threaten lives and property on the ground.
Shortly after 2pm EDT on Saturday, Nasa administrator Bill Nelson released a statement, by email and on Twitter, admonishing China for not providing better information on the projected re-entry path of their rocket.
“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,” Mr Nelson said. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.”
Saturday marks the third time China has let a rocket re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere uncontrolled.
In May 2021, another rocket carrying part of the Chinese space station was left to circle the Earth once every 90 minutes before breaking up over the Indian Ocean about a week later. In 2020, another Long March rocket crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just 13 minutes from hitting New York City.