Parts from a Chinese Long March rocket fell into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, China’s Manned Space Engineering Office reported late Saturday night, ending days of international speculation over whether plummeting rocket debris might be scattered over a populated area.
Videos on social media showed the 22-ton Long March 5B, which had been drifting uncontrolled in low orbit for days, blazing a trail of light over the Arabian Peninsula as it burned up during descent. The Chinese agency said it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at 10:24 p.m. Eastern time before finally landing at 72.47 degrees east and 2.65 degrees north, a location in the ocean southwest of the Maldivian capital Malé.
“The vast majority of components was ablated and destroyed during reentry into the atmosphere,” the Chinese agency said.
The Space-Track project said in a tweet: “Everyone else following the #LongMarch5B reentry can relax. The rocket is down.”
At around 100 feet tall and weighing about 22 metric tons, the rocket stage is one of the largest objects to ever reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on an uncontrolled trajectory.
The rocket’s reentry had prompted international concern about where it might land. Scientists said the risk to humans was astronomically low, but it was not impossible for it to land in a populated area.
In a statement Sunday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized China for “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” and called on space-faring nations to minimize the risk to humans and properties with their space missions.
Before Sunday, the European Space Agency had predicted a “risk zone” that encompassed much of the world, including nearly all of the Americas, all of Africa and Australia, parts of Asia and European countries such as Italy and Greece.
China has been criticized for its handling of the rocket booster, which was launched into space on April 29 to ferry the first module of the Tianhe space station. China did not design the mission so the used booster would have a controlled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere over a predetermined remote area or ocean.
Astrophysicists described China’s decision as potentially hazardous corner-cutting. “There’s clearly a significant chance that it’s going to come down on land,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told CNN on Saturday.
China’s state media, however, has reacted angrily to the international scrutiny, saying its launch was being unfairly maligned. State media slammed U.S. media outlets for covering China’s “out-of-control space junk,” in contrast with a recent SpaceX rocket that also left parts falling into farmland in the western United States.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin defended China’s recent mission design as “standard international practice,” saying at a news conference this week that “China is always committed to the peaceful use of outer space,” according to state media.
The size of the Long March rocket made its reentry more unpredictable than others. Most satellites and other man-made objects are small enough to burn up in the atmosphere. But the Long March booster is much larger, which raised concern that pieces could survive and hit the ground.
The rocket’s tumbling motion as it passed through the mesosphere, an outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, had also made calculations of its speed tricky to project.
Space has been a point of national pride for China, which is expected to run the only operational space station after the retirement of the International Space Station in the next four years. The country, which has spoken of putting people back on the moon, has completed a flurry of successful lunar and Mars missions in recent years.
But China’s burgeoning space program has contributed to the growing problem of space debris. The Secure World Foundation, a think tank, said that China in 2007 “created a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of space debris” after the country shot down a dead satellite with a missile.
During the first flight of the Long March 5B rocket last year, the booster passed over populated portions of Earth before pieces of debris landed in Africa. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator at the time, slammed the Chinese space agency for the booster’s return, saying the event “could have been extremely dangerous.”
Matthew Cappucci and Christian Davenport contributed to this report.