Yesterday we reported a lucky escape, with China's Long March 5B booster rocket entering Earth's atmosphere in an uncontrolled reentry and ditching in the ocean off the Philippines. However, returning space junk usually breaks up when it hits the atmosphere, so while it may still be true the largest component landed at 119.0°E, 9.1°N, as reported, it appears some fell over land, in at least one case disturbingly close to houses. Radioactivity fears have reportedly led to two families being evacuated.
A paper estimating a 10 percent chance of someone being hit (and likely killed) by space junk in the next decade has gone from sounding alarmist to prescient in the space of a month. When the paper was published three weeks ago there were only four or five confirmed cases of human material hitting land in an uncontrolled return from space over the 65 years since Sputnik 1.
Since publication, multiple pieces of a suspected SpaceX rocket – one almost 3 meters (9 feet) high – have been found distributed across southern New South Wales, Australia. Now an even bigger twisted item has been filmed in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, with another two pieces reported from nearby Sarawak, Borneo.
Although it will take time to confirm each come from the Long March 5B rocket, the fact the main component passed almost directly above these parts of Borneo makes that highly probable.
The 5B rocket was launched on July 24 to carry part of China’s future Tiangong space station into orbit. While the mission appears to have been successful, control over the booster rocket was lost, leading to a global watch to see where it would come down. Atmospheric drag is sufficiently uncertain that space junks' return time and location can be extremely unpredictable.
In the end, the rocket entered the atmosphere over Malaysia shortly after midnight local time and was filmed breaking up from several locations (although at least some videos purporting to be of the event had other origins) Although the heaviest pieces apparently made it to the ocean, and smaller components probably burned up entirely, it seems parts that were intermediary in size landed on the world’s third largest island.
The Borneo Post reports residents have told of seeing bright streaks of light and hearing the sonic boom. A subsequent article from the same outlet describes objects being found on either side of the Indonesia/Malaysia border, with the largest a 5-meter-by-2-meter sheet of metal that landed on a palm oil plantation.
“We have cordoned off the site to prevent intruders from coming in,” local police chief Ade Kuncoro Ridwan told the Borneo Post. “We strongly advise everyone to not approach the location due to suspected presence of radioactive substance in the object.”
The landing sites are around 1,000 kilometers from where the main part fell, indicating the scale required for search operations.
Numbers are printed on the metal sheet, which authorities will try to connect to the rocket to confirm its identity.
Meanwhile, further pieces of metal, suspected to come from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon rocket, have been found in southern New South Wales. This was a considerably smaller object than the Long March rocket, indicating just how big the pieces of Long March could be.
Neither the Chinese government nor SpaceX has said if they will offer compensation for any damage.