The fate of China's Long March 5B rocket that had been hurtling around Earth in an uncontrolled orbit came to a conclusion at the weekend as part of the rocket survived reentry and made splashdown in the Indian Ocean south-west of the Maldives. For over a week there had been speculations of where it might land. While the chances of it landing on populated areas were small, it was not outside the realm of possibility. Especially since it already happened last year when parts of a Chinese rocket landed in a village in Cote d'Ivoire.
The uncontrolled re-entry and lack of communication from the Chinese government and space agency concerned many. Newly appointed NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson released a statement regarding this incident scolding China for what happened but also reminding every organization that performs space launches, public or private, that they ought to act responsibly.
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” Nelson said in the statement.
“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.”
Former satellites, space stations, spacecraft parts, and even a spatula are among the space junk that has eventually come back down to Earth. Most of these burn up completely in the atmosphere. The largest are usually brought down in a controlled manner so that they end up in the ocean, not inhabited areas.
The Long March 5B was 30 meters (100 feet) long and weighed an estimated 22.5 tonnes. This makes it the eighth heaviest object to fall down to Earth from orbit but it is the equal fourth largest to make an uncontrolled re-entry.
Luckily no one was hurt this time, but this second uncontrolled reentry of a Chinese rocket has people concerned for China's plans for future large rockets delivering the rest of the planned Tiangong space station.