Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 9 May 2021


‘Irresponsible’: Nasa chides China as rocket debris lands in Indian Ocean

US agency accuses Beijing of failing to meet expected standards regarding its space debris

China's Long March-5B Y2 rocket
Footage shows debris from China’s largest rocket falling to Earth – video
Reuters in Beijing

First published on Sun 9 May 2021 04.36 BST

Remnants of China’s biggest rocket have landed in the Indian Ocean, ending days of speculation over where the debris would hit and drawing US criticism over a lack of transparency.

The coordinates given by Chinese state media, citing the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), put the point of impact west of the Maldives archipelago.

There had been concern about debris from the Long March 5B since it blasted off from China’s Hainan island on 29 April, but the CMSEO said most of it had burned up when it re-entered the atmosphere.

State media reported that parts of the rocket had re-entered the atmosphere at 10.24am Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with the coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.

The US Space Command confirmed the rocket’s re-entry over the Arabian Peninsula, but said it was unknown if the debris hit land or water.

“The exact location of the impact and the span of debris, both of which are unknown at this time, will not be released by US Space Command,” it said in a statement on its website.

The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Remnants of the first Long March 5B fell on the Ivory Coast last year, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

“Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations,” said Nasa’s administrator, Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut. “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

With most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds of a populated area of land being hit was low and the likelihood of injuries even lower, but uncertainty over the rocket‘s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to re-entry fuelled anxiety.

“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” Nelson said.

The Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

Since large chunks of the Nasa space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.

“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” said McDowell.

Chinese rocket’s chaotic fall to Earth highlights problem of space junk Read more

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, dismissed as “western hype” concerns that the rocket was out of control and could cause damage.

“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular media briefing on Friday.

“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” he said.

The rocket, which put into orbit an unmanned Tianhe module containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station by 2022.

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