All eyes have been on China’s Long March 5B (pictured above) as it tumbled back near Earth’s atmosphere. No one knew exactly when nor where it would land—there was always a chance it could land in a populated area—but everyone can rest easy. China’s largest rocket has landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives late on Saturday night, well away from any large cities or significant landmasses.
At the moment, there are no reports of damage. It is unclear if any smaller pieces landed on the atoll, The Washington Post reports.
Humans have been launching rockets into space for decades, but we haven’t faced a situation like this one before—so what, exactly, went wrong?
Basically, China aimed to create its largest rocket—clocking in at 108 feet and nearly 40,000 pounds—to launch a new Chinese space station into orbit on April 29, 2021. In most cases, these missions are designed so that there is a controlled reentry of the rocket’s booster into Earth’s atmosphere, basically guaranteeing that it lands in a predictable place at a predictable time. Or, they’ll leave the space station in a “graveyard” orbit for decades or centuries—which is a whole other concern.
China didn’t do that. Once the fuel in the booster was used up, the rocket was left to careen through space uncontrolled until it got caught up by Earth’s gravity and dragged to the ground. And now it’s facing criticism from the space community because that is, obviously, not something you want to happen. It’s generally considered best to avoid letting debris just land willy-nilly—even if the chances of it hitting a major metropolitan area were astronomically low.
Here’s a little more about the response from The Washington Post:
China’s state media, however, has reacted angrily to the international scrutiny, saying its launch was being unfairly maligned. State media slammed U.S. media outlets for covering China’s “out-of-control space junk,” in contrast with a recent SpaceX rocket that also left parts falling into farmland in the western United States.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin defended China’s recent mission design as “standard international practice,” saying at a news conference this week that “China is always committed to the peaceful use of outer space,” according to state media.
As you can imagine, though, a very long and heavy rocket is more unpredictable than something smaller—and the Long March 5B was exactly that. It didn’t pierce the atmosphere so much as it tumbled in, essentially out of control.
Whatever the case, we can be thankful it doesn't appear anyone has been hurt as a result of the uncontrolled reentry.