China’s uncontrolled Long March 5B rocket has re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, landing somewhere near Sarawak, the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.
US Space Command confirmed rocket re-entry at 12:45 p.m. ET, but it’s still unclear where its debris landed. In a translated article on WeiboChina’s Manned Space Agency said the rocket re-entered near the same area and most of it burned on its way down.
On July 24, China used a Long March 5B rocket to launch a laboratory module to its unfinished Tiangong space station. Unlike most rockets, the Long March 5B puts its first stage into orbit upon delivering its payload. This piece, which is over 100 feet long and weighs over 22 tons, circles the Earth for a bit until it crashes to Earth, with no way to control its movement.
Uncertainty about where the rocket would land spread across the world in the past week, as projections had the rocket landing anywhere from Mexico to the southern tip of Africa. This is the third Chinese launch for Long March 5B, marking its third uncontrollable landing. In 2020, China used a Long March 5B to bring the base module from Tiangong space out. Rocket debris landed in Ivory Coast, and although no injuries were reported, there was structural damage. Last year, China launched its first laboratory module aboard a Long March 5B, whose parts ended up falling in the Indian Ocean.
The re-entry appears to have been observed from Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia. The debris would land in North Borneo, possibly Brunei. [corrected] https://t.co/sX6m1XMYoO
—Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) July 30, 2022
Malaysian users on Twitter captured the apparent re-entry of the rocket, with some believe in be a meteor. Jonathan McDowell, astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believe the debris of the rocket could end up near Sibu, Bintulu or Brunei – three towns along the northern coast of Borneo – but believes it is “unlikely” that it landed in a populated area.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson responded to the uncontrolled landing in a statement on Twitter. “The People’s Republic of China did not share specific information about the trajectory when its Long March 5B rocket landed on Earth,” Nelson writes. “All space nations should follow established best practices and do their part to share this type of information in advance to enable 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.
Sadly, this isn’t the last out-of-control rocket to crash into Earth. China plans to launch its third and final module at Tiangong using a 5B long march in October, and will use the rocket again to bring a telescope into space in 2023.