China’s largest rocket has returned to Earth after days of tantalizing speculation about where it could land.
A central part of the rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean early Sunday, according to China’s space agency, and the majority of it burned up.
Reentry occurred at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “During the reentry process, the vast majority of objects were burned beyond recognition,” the study said.
The United States Space Command said the rocket reentered over the Arabian Peninsula at 10:15 p.m. EDT Saturday, but “it is unclear whether the debris impacted land or water.”
On social media, people in Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia said they had seen Chinese rocket debris.
“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” said Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who monitored the tumbling rocket component on Twitter. China seems to have come out on top in this bet…. Nonetheless, it was risky.”
“It is clear that China is struggling to follow responsible expectations about their space debris,” NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
The rocket’s size and altitude, experts said, made predicting what would happen when it plummeted to Earth virtually impossible. The segment was about 100 feet long, making it one of the largest bits of space debris to hit the ground.
The debris came from the rocket’s largest portion, which carried China’s first permanent space station’s main module into orbit. Discarded rocket stages typically reenter the atmosphere shortly after liftoff, usually over water, and do not enter orbit.
Models and visualizations from various space science organizations revealed on Saturday that the debris could land in a variety of flight paths around the world.
According to Aerospace Corporation, a California-based nonprofit that runs a space research and development facility, Australia, Africa, portions of Europe, South America, Central America, and the United States were all within potential reentry zones.
China tried to allay global concerns on Friday by claiming that the rocket would mostly burn up on reentry and would pose little danger to people and property on the ground.
It isn’t the first time in recent memory that a rocket has crashed to the ground. According to CNN, part of a Chinese rocket flew directly over Los Angeles and New York City’s Central Park before crashing in the Atlantic Ocean last year, making it one of the largest pieces of unregulated space debris ever.
Last May, an 18-ton rocket crashed uncontrollably for the first time since the Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.
After losing control, China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016. In 2019, the space agency successfully decommissioned Tiangong-2, its second orbiting station.
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) May 9, 2021