Debris from the last stage of China’s Long March rocket that had last month carried a key component of its under-construction space station fell into the waters of the Indian Ocean west of the Maldives on Sunday.
The re-entry of the rocket, described by astrophysicists as the fourth-largest uncontrolled reentry in history, had evoked concerns in recent days about possible damage should it have fallen on land, and had been criticised by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S. for “failing to meet responsible standards”. China had rejected those concerns, saying most of the debris had been burned during re-entry and that a fall into international waters was most likely.
The China Manned Space Agency (CSMA) said on Sunday “the vast majority of the device burned up during the reentry, and the rest of the debris fell into a sea area with the centre at 2.65 degrees north latitude and 72.47 degrees east longitude,” placing it west of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
The Maldives National Defence Force said on Sunday its Coastguard Squadron “is active after receiving reports of rocket debris fallen in Maldivian waters”.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement called on “spacefaring nations” to “minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations.” “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” he said.
Chinese experts rejected the criticism over the uncontrolled entry, saying authorities had been tracking the course, although they did not have any control over where the debris would fall.
“It only refers to the loss of propulsion, but in no way means that China has lost track of its flying trajectory and real-time location,” Song Zhongping, an aerospace commentator and former instructor at a PLA Rocket Force affiliated university, told the Global Times, saying that debris from the U.S. SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that fell on a farm in Washington State did not attract similar criticism and showed Western “double standards”.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the uncontrolled reentry of the Chinese rocket was “the equal fourth-biggest” among uncontrolled reentries, on a par with the first Long March rocket that last year fell in the Ivory Coast where there were reports of debris damaging homes in villages. “An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” he said on Twitter. “It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket was carrying the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, module, which is the first of three key components for the construction of China’s space station, which will be completed by the end of next year.
Tianhe will act “the management and control hub of the space station” which is called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, Chinese authorities said after the April 29 launch of the rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island province of Hainan.
The space station, which will be only the second after the International Space Station (ISS), has been designed with a lifespan of 10 years but could last 15 years, or until 2037. The life of the ISS, experts say, could be extended until 2030, by when one of its members, Russia, has said it would launch its own space station.