The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s most powerful rocket falls back to Earth, lands in criticism

People watch the launch of a Long March 5B rocket transporting China's second module for its Tiangong space station from the Wenchang spaceport in southern China on July 24. (CNS/AFP/Getty Images)
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China said its most powerful rocket fell back to Earth, as NASA criticized Beijing for failing to share crucial data about its trajectory.

The Long March 5B rocket, which weighs more than 1.8 million pounds, blasted off from the Wenchang spaceport on July 24 — carrying another module to China’s first permanent space station, Tiangong, which is in the process of being constructed.

The “vast majority” of the rocket’s debris burned up during reentry into the atmosphere at about 12:55 a.m., the China Manned Space Agency said Sunday in a statement on its official Weibo social media account.

The rest “landed in the sea” at 119.0 degrees East and 9.1 degrees North, it said. These coordinates are in the waters off the Philippine island of Palawan, southeast of the city of Puerto Princesa. China’s statement did not say whether any debris fell on land.

Experts were concerned that the huge size of the 176-foot rocket and the risky design of its launch process would mean its debris might not burn up as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket shed its empty 23-ton first stage in orbit, looping the planet over several days as it approached landing in a difficult-to-predict flight path.

Debris from China rocket launch to crash-land — and no one knows where

The United States said China was taking on a significant risk by allowing the rocket to fall uncontrolled to Earth without advising on its potential path.

“The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted Saturday.

“All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property,” he continued. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.”

Ahead of the rocket’s reentry, China sought to quash fears that debris posed a risk to the public, predicting that pieces from the core stage would probably end up in the sea.

U.S. criticism of China when it comes to space debris has been long-running. “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” read a statement released by NASA last year.

Last week, China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times accused the West of showing “sour grapes” and trying to discredit its efforts in space. The article accused the United States of leading a “smear campaign” against the “robust development of China’s aerospace sector.”