Spent Chinese rocket booster splashes down over Southeast Asia

NASA chief slams Beijing for not disclosing Long March 5B trajectory


Debris leftover from China's Long March 5B rocket has reportedly crashed down into the sea off the Philippines, and scattered on land by the borders of Indonesia and Malaysia.

The 23-ton piece of junk measured 53.6 metres in length, and was a booster component of the China National Space Administration's (CNSA) most advanced rocket. Specifically, the booster was part of a Long March 5B vehicle that carried the Wentian laboratory cabin to the country's Tiangong orbiting space station last month. After the module successfully docked to the station, the rocket booster began tumbling back down to Earth.

According US Space Command, the booster reentered the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean on Saturday.

Figuring out the exact landing spot of the booster is tricky because when the rocket debris enters the atmosphere, it burns up, breaks apart, and could come down over a relatively wide area. Falling bits of hardware are potentially hazardous if they land near populated areas, though the China Manned Space Agency claimed most of the Long March 5B booster was destroyed as it charged through Earth's atmosphere over the weekend.

Surviving parts reportedly fell in the waters near Palawan, an island province of the Philippines, at coordinates 119.0 degrees East and 9.1 degrees North, it said on Sunday via its official account on Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, the Washington Post reported.

NASA's Administrator Bill Nelson criticized the Chinese government for not being more transparent about the rocket booster's whereabouts as it descended toward Earth.

"The People's Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth," he said in a statement.

"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. Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth."

China's not the only one spewing debris it seems.

Dr Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist with the Australian National University, was called out to an Australian sheep farm in New South Wales to examine a strange object he thinks is part of a SpaceX booster that fell to Earth last month.

The farmers showed him a spacecraft panel, with a partial ID number, and one chunk of debris embedded in the landscape. You can see the evidence here.

There is some evidence that some space junk landed in parts of Borneo island, in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and Sawarak, Malaysia. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard and Smithsonian's Center for Astrophysics, said he has seen images and videos of local residents finding what look like spent rocket debris parts.

"All those reports lie on the line of the rocket's trajectory and are consistent with the expectation that the reentry would extend over 1000 km stretch of that track," he told The Register.

The best step China should take to minimize the risk of leftover rocket parts coming crashing down and striking populated areas is redesign the Long March 5B vehicle, he said.

"[China] should redesign the [rocket] not to leave its core stage in orbit. Once the stage was jettisoned after orbit insertion on July 24, there was nothing they could do to make it safer." ®

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