Debris from uncontrolled, 23-ton Chinese rocket falls to Earth
A massive Chinese booster rocket fell uncontrolled to Earth on Saturday and landed over the Indian Ocean, according to U.S. Space Command.
The booster is part of the 23-ton Long March 5B-Y3 rocket — China’s most powerful — that carried the Wentian module to China’s orbiting space station, aboard which three astronauts currently reside. China decided not to guide the booster back through the atmosphere.
A Twitter user in Kuching, Malaysia posted video of the debris soaring through the sky:
Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit space research organization, predicted the booster would hit earth around 1:08 p.m. Eastern time, give or take an hour.
According to The New York Times, you have a better chance of winning the Mega Millions lottery than being struck by the falling space debris, but space debris experts told The Times the minimal risk is still higher than they’d like.
"This is a real concern," space debris expert Ted Muelhaupt said. "The Chinese shouldn’t do this."
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Aerospace Corporation notes that over 88 percent of the world’s population lives under the reentry's potential debris footprint.
"A reentry of this size will not burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the general rule of thumb is that 20–40 percent of the mass of a large object will reach the ground," the organization said on its website.
China’s space program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and has largely proceeded with the space station program without other nations’ assistance. The U.S. excluded China from the International Space Station because of its military ties.
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China has allowed rocket stages to fall back to Earth on their own at least twice before, and was accused by NASA last year of "failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris" after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.
WENCHANG, CHINA - JULY 24: A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China's space station lab module Wentian blasts off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on July 24, 2022 in Wenchang, Hainan Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
China also drew heavy criticism after using a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites in 2007, creating a massive debris field.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Wednesday rejected such concerns.
"Since the development stage of the space engineering program, China has taken into consideration the debris mitigation and return from orbit into atmosphere of missions involving rocket carriers and satellite sent into orbit," Zhao said at a daily briefing Wednesday.
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"It is understood that this type of rocket adopts a special technical design that most of the components will be burnt up and destroyed during the reentry process," Zhao said. "The possibility of causing damage to aviation activities or on the ground is extremely low."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.