Debris suspected to be from a Chinese booster rocket that came back to Earth uncontrolled on Saturday has reportedly been found yards from villages in Malaysia and Indonesia.
A charred ring of metal around five meters in diameter was found on Sunday in Kalimantan, Indonesia, according to a Malaysian news agency. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the metal appeared to be exactly the size of the Chinese rocket’s core stage.
“It looks like the end cap of a rocket stage propellant tank,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that it is from the rocket … it is in the right place at the right time and looks like it is from the right type of rocket.”
The unmanned Long March 5B rocket carried the second of three modules to complete the Tiangong space station. Earlier this week, China said it would closely track the debris and that it posed little risk.
But Aerospace Corp, a government-funded nonprofit research center near Los Angeles, said it was reckless to allow the entire rocket’s core stage to return to Earth unchecked.
On Saturday, the Nasa administrator, Bill Nelson, also yelled China refused to share information about the rocket’s descent, calling it irresponsible and risky. “All spaceflight 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 vehicles such as the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”
The warning came two years after fragments of a Chinese Long March 5B damaged several buildings in Ivory Coast. No injuries have been reported.
On Sunday, local media said two families were evacuated from their homes in Sarawak, Malaysia due to radioactivity concerns after a piece of debris suspected to be from the Tiangong rocket was found nearby.
The report showed a piece of metal wedged half a meter into the ground. Malaysia’s Space Agency and Atomic Energy Licensing Board investigated the incident along with local police.
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McDowell said it was difficult to tell from the quality of the image whether the image was of debris from the rocket, but he was certain that several parts of the country near the border with Indonesia and Malaysia since there had been many local media reports of people finding suspicious metal objects .
The discovery was made a day after people in Sarawak posted pictures of debris lighting up the night sky as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. “At first we thought it was a shooting star,” said Aizul Sidek, who was filming with his smartphone in Kuching, Sarawak.
Another resident told local media that he was surprised at around 12:40 a.m. by a sound of thunder and a tremor that shook his house.
McDowell said most spacefaring nations designed rockets to avoid uncontrolled re-entry. There was no international law that required this, he said, but avoiding the risk became a necessity after parts of Nasa’s Skylab space station fell from orbit in 1979 and landed in outback Australia.
He said that of the six largest uncontrolled re-entries in the space age, three were recent Chinese rockets.
“It really shows you that they stand out from what other countries are doing today … we realized in the 70s that putting 20-30 tonnes of stuff [re-enter uncontrolled] was a bad idea.
“In the 60 years of the space age, there have been injuries from rockets, but no actual injuries. We want to keep it that way,” McDowell said. “China is becoming one of the leading space powers, and so we need to find a way to bring them into the family of space nations and hopefully encourage them to adopt these norms.”