A Chinese booster rocket returned to Earth uncontrolled on Saturday, prompting US officials to accuse Beijing of not sharing information about the potentially dangerous object’s descent.
The US Space Command “can confirm that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 a.m. MDT on July 30,” the US military unit said on Twitter.
“We refer you to #PRC for further details on re-entry technical aspects such as potential debris dispersion + impact site,” it said.
In a statement posted on its official WeChat profile, the China Manned Space Agency later provided coordinates for an impact area in the Sulu Sea, about 57 kilometers off the east coast of the Philippines’ Palawan Island.
“Most of the devices were ablated and destroyed during re-entry,” the agency said of the booster rocket, which was used last Sunday to launch the second of three modules China needed to complete its new Tiangong space station.
Malaysia’s space agency said it discovered rocket debris that burned up on re-entry before falling in the Sulu Sea northeast of the island of Borneo.
“The rocket’s debris caught fire while entering Earth’s airspace and the movement of the burning debris also crossed Malaysian airspace and could be detected in several areas, including crossing the airspace around the state of Sarawak,” it said.
– NASA criticism –
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized Beijing on Twitter, saying its failure to share details of the rocket’s descent was irresponsible and risky.
“All spaceflight nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance,” Nelson wrote, “to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, particularly for heavy vehicles, such as the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”
He added: “Doing so is essential for the responsible use of space and for ensuring the safety of people here on Earth.”
The Tiangong space station is one of the crown jewels of Beijing’s ambitious space program, which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, making China only the third nation to put humans into orbit.
The new module, powered by the Long March 5B, docked with Tiangong’s core module on Monday, and the three astronauts who had lived in the main compartment since June entered the new laboratory.
When China launched its first Tiangong module in April 2021, there was a similar frenzy over the possibility of damage caused by an unpredictable booster reentry.
Objects generate enormous amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones like the Long March-5B may not be completely destroyed.
In 2020, debris from another Chinese missile fell on villages in Côte d’Ivoire, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.
China has poured billions of dollars into space and exploration as it seeks to build a program that reflects its status as a rising global power.