China’s most powerful rocket falls back to Earth, lands in criticism


China said its most powerful rocket fell back to Earth as NASA criticized Beijing for failing to share crucial data about its trajectory.

The Long March-5B rocket, which weighs more than 1.8 million pounds, blasted off from the Wenchang spaceport on July 24 — carrying another module to China’s first permanent space station, Tiangong, which is in the process of being constructed.

The “vast majority” of the rocket’s debris burned up during reentry into the atmosphere at around at 12:55 a.m, the China Manned Space Agency said Sunday in a statement on its official Weibo social media account.

The rest “landed in the sea” at 119.0° East and 9.1° North, it said. These coordinates are in the waters off the island of Palawan, southeast of Philippines city Puerto Princesa. China’s statement did not say whether any debris fell on land.

Experts were concerned that the huge size of the 176-foot rocket and the risky design of its launch process would mean its debris may not burn up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket shed its empty 23-ton first stage in orbit, looping the planet over days as it approaches landing in a difficult-to-predict flight path.

Debris from China rocket launch to crash-land — and no one knows where

The United States said that China was taking on a significant risk by allowing the rocket to fall uncontrolled to Earth without advising on its potential path.

“The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” tweeted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Saturday.

“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, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property,” he continued. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.

Ahead of the rocket’s reentry, China sought to quash fears that debris posed a risk to the public, predicting that pieces from the core stage would likely end up in the sea.

U.S. criticism of China when it comes to space debris has been long running. “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” read a statement released by NASA earlier this year.

China’s position that the odds of debris causing severe damage are small was backed by some experts. The chances that someone would die or be injured from parts of a rocket would be at 1 in 10 over the next decade, according to an article published in the journal Nature Astronomy this month. But many believe launch designs like the Long March 5B’s are an unnecessary risk.

Last week, China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times accused the West of showing “sour grapes” and trying to discredit its space efforts in space. The article accused the United States of leading a “smear campaign” against the “robust development of China’s aerospace sector.”

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