On Saturday, July 30, Malaysians bore witness to what appeared to be a meteor shower in the night sky. In reality, it was reported to be the remains of China’s recently launched Long March 5B Rocket.
The rocket’s reentry drew criticism from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) over Beijing’s failure to share information concerning the rocket’s trajectory as well as other data.
No shooting stars
According to U.S. Space Command, the Long March 5B rocket returned to the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean at around 12:45 p.m. EDT Saturday (16:45 GMT). Via a post on Twitter, they asked China about the “reentry’s technical aspects such as potential debris dispersal impact location.”
The Malaysian Space Agency (MYSA) said that the debris was “unlikely to land in Malaysia.”
On July 29, the agency said in a statement posted to Facebook, “Due to the strong atmospheric drag to the orbit, the debris is expected to enter the Earth’s atmosphere a few days after the launch.”
“Basically, the location of the re-entry of the debris can’t be predicted accurately until a few hours prior to re-entry and in many cases, there will be a vast difference in the forecast due to the change in the physical characteristics of the object during re-entry, including location and speed,” it added, also stating that the debris would burn up upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
A burnt-up metallic ring — five meters in diameter — was found in Kalimantan, Indonesia, on Sunday, according to The Star. Jonathan McDowell, astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believed the metal was the same size as the Long March rocket’s core stage.
“It looks like the end cap of a rocket stage propellant tank,” he said, according to The Guardian. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s from the rocket… it’s in the right place at the right time and looks like it is from the right kind of rocket.”
The Malaysian Ministry of Space, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) assured Malaysians that there was no need to worry as the debris was unlikely to hit the country’s small land area and low buildings.
It was estimated that the debris would land at a latitude of 31.9° and longitude of 148.9°, however it was difficult to determine the exact coordinates.
Malaysians shared their sightings of the debris on social media, expressing their awe at the display in the night sky.
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The Long March 5B rocket
China’s Long March 5B rocket is believed to be Beijing’s most powerful rocket. Weighing more than 1.8 million pounds, the rocket was launched from the Wenchang spaceport in Hainan province on July 24. It is currently the most powerful member of a series of Long March rockets that began with the Long March 1 in 1970.
The Long March 5B rocket was launched to deliver a laboratory module for China’s new Tiangong space station, which is currently under construction.
The recent fall was the third uncontrolled descent of a Long March 5B core so far, with the first happening above West Africa in May 2020. The second occurred in April 2021, when it fell over the Arabian peninsula and into the Indian Ocean.
Upon news of the descent, NASA lauded Beijing for not sharing information on it, with the company’s administrator Bill Nelson saying that all nations capable of space exploration should adopt best practices and relay information to other space agencies.
“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,” NASA said in a statement posted online. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth,” the agency added.
Aerospace Corp, a nonprofit research center near Los Angeles, said that allowing the rocket’s main-core stage to re-enter Earth was reckless.
In 2021, NASA and other space-based organizations blasted China for not sharing details about the trajectory of the second Long March 5B rocket fall in May of that year.