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Chinese rocket debris comes down near villages

Debris from a recent Chinese rocket re-entry has reportedly been found close to several villages in Malaysia and Indonesia. No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

The uncontrolled descent of the 30-meter-tall, 5-meter-wide Long March 5B core stage followed its mission last week to transport the second of three modules to China’s new space station in low-Earth orbit.

China had said the falling rocket posed little risk to people on the ground, but reports that debris has come down in fields close to several villages suggest that it turned out to be a close call.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, on Monday shared what he described as “convincing” reports of rocket debris landing in Borneo, on both the Indonesian and Malaysian sides of the border.

An image shared by McDowell showed what he said was “clearly a large part of the re-entered stage” of the Long March 5B rocket in a field. The astrophysicist was able to confirm that its location was on the booster’s re-entry track, adding weight to the idea that the debris is genuine.

But the same news report gives a shot of something that is CLEARLY a large part of the reentered stage, in Balaikarangan in W Kalimantan pic.twitter.com/D3svNTv2TF

— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) August 1, 2022

First-stage boosters usually burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere after they’ve done their job of powering the second stage and its payload to orbit. But larger boosters, like China’s Long March 5B, can fail to completely burn up, sending debris hurtling toward Earth. It’s worth noting that SpaceX has developed a system that allows it to land its first-stage booster back on Earth so that it can be used for multiple missions.

NASA chief Bill Nelson recently criticized China for not taking more care with its rocket following its recent launch.

He said the nation’s space agency had failed to share specific trajectory information for the first-stage booster’s descent, adding: “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.”

“Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth,” Nelson said.

When debris from another Chinese Long March 5B rocket was heading toward Earth following a mission in May last year, McDowell said the risk of damage or of it hitting someone was “pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny.”

But he added that China could eliminate all risk if it had chosen to design the rocket in a way that enabled a controlled re-entry toward water. Debris from a launch of that type landed, by chance, in the Indian Ocean.

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