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A wayward Chinese rocket reportedly rained metal debris in West Africa

A Chinese rocket that fell back down to Earth reportedly left behind metallic debris over parts of West Africa earlier this week.

China’s Long March 5B rocket launched on May 5 as a test of the experimental spacecraft. However, the rocket’s core fell into a lower orbit than expected. It fell back to Earth on Monday, May 11, scattering debris over parts of the country of Côte d’Ivoire, according to reports from local news outlets in the area. 

Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images

The Long March 5B rocket measures about 20 metric tons and is 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, making it the biggest object to make an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth since the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in 1991, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell. 

McDowell also tweeted a photo of rocket debris that landed in Cote d’Ivoire’s village of Mahounou. 

Reports of a 12-m-long object crashing into the village of Mahounou in Cote d'Ivoire. It's directly on the CZ-5B reentry track, 2100 km downrange from the Space-Track reentry location. Possible that part of the stage could have sliced through the atmo that far (photo: Aminata24)

— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 12, 2020

“I would not be surprised if several bits with masses of the order of 100 to 300kg hit the surface,” McDowell told Ars Technica in a statement. “I would be a bit surprised if anything as big as 1 metric ton did.”

The rocket was initially projected to descend upon the U.S.; its path previously predicted to pass directly over L.A. and New York City. Reports said that if the rocket had re-entered Earth’s atmosphere a mere 15 or 20 minutes earlier, the debris could very well have fallen on America’s two largest cities. 

China previously launched an earlier version of the rocket, called Long March-5, in December, where it carried a Shijian-20 satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. That rocket was designed to carry up to eight tons into Earth-Moon transfer orbit, or up to five tons into Earth-Mars transfer orbit.

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