A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, according to the Chinese space agency, after speculation about where the 18-ton object would fall.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the free-falling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the remains of the last stage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle have re-entered the atmosphere.” China’s Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during re-entry.

The monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, also confirmed the re-entry.

“Everyone else who follows the re-entry of LongMarch5B can relax. The rocket fell”, it tweeted.

Tweet de Space-Track

The drop in the segment coincided with the predictions of some experts that any debris would have splashed into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.

But the uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object had raised concerns about possible damage and casualties, even though the statistical probability was low.

The Asian country launched the first module of its space station into orbit on April 29, thanks to the Long March 5B carrier rocket, the most powerful and imposing Chinese launcher.

China, very discreet in this matter, did not publish any forecast about the possible time of the entrance to the Earth’s atmosphere, where it should totally or partially disintegrate.

For the Russian special agency Roscosmos, entry could be made at 23:30 GMT on Saturday in southern Indonesia. While the US Department of Defense estimated that it will occur around 11:00 p.m. GMT, with a margin of error of nine hours.

After a long silence from the Chinese diplomatic and space authorities, Beijing finally reacted on Friday.

“Most of the components (of the rocket) will burn and destroy upon entering the atmosphere,” said the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin.

Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry

Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“The probability of causing damage to aerial activities or (to people, buildings) on the ground is extremely low,” he said at a press conference.

Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell reacted on Twitter on Saturday: “New predictions from Space Force 18SPCS reduce it to one orbit: Costa Rica, Haiti, Spain, Sardinia, Italy, Greece and Crete, Israel, Jordan, Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia”.

Impact probabilities

The Chinese media on Saturday gave minimal coverage of the event and limited themselves to reproducing the words of the diplomacy spokesman.

Although parts of the rocket remain intact after entering the atmosphere, there is a great possibility that they have been destroyed at sea because 70% of the planet is water.

“We hope they land in a place where they won’t hurt anyone”, Mike Howard, a spokesman for the United States Department of Defense, said on Friday, stressing that his country was closely following the trajectory of the rocket.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured last Thursday that his country had no intention of destroying the Chinese ship. But he hinted that China did not plan its launch carefully enough.

“Given the size of the object, it is inevitable that large chunks remain,” said Florent Delefie, an astronomer at the Paris-PSL Observatory.

But the probability of an impact in an inhabited area was “minimal, probably less than one in a million”, said Nicolas Bobrinsky, head of the Department of Engineering and Innovation at the European Space Agency (ESA).

Logo of the European Space Agency (ESA)

“There is no need to worry too much,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States.

“But the fact that a ton of pieces of metal falls on Earth at hundreds of km / h is not good practice, and China should review the design of the Long March 5B missions to avoid this,” he added.

In 2020, debris from another Long March rocket crashed into villages in Côte d’Ivoire, causing damage but not injuring others.

The Tiangong-1 space laboratory disintegrated upon re-entry into the atmosphere in 2018, two years after it ceased operation, although Chinese authorities denied losing control of the spacecraft.

China has invested billions of dollars in its space program for several decades.

The Asian giant sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. A Chinese probe landed on the far side of the Moon in 2019, a world first.

Last year, he brought back samples from the Moon and finished Beidu, his satellite navigation system (competitor to the American GPS).

And in the coming weeks, China plans to pose a small wheeled robot on Mars. In addition, the Chinese space agency announced its intention to build a lunar base with Russia.

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