NASA accuses China of acting irresponsibly after 30m rocket crashes to Earth

9 May 2021, 13:48

The Long March 5B rocket took off from southern China on 29 April 2021.
The Long March 5B rocket took off from southern China on 29 April 2021. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

NASA has accused China of "failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris" after a 30-metre discarded rocket segment was allowed to crash to Earth on Sunday.

Most of the core segment of the Long March 5B rocket - China's largest - burned up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean on Sunday.

However, experts have accused the Chinese space agency of behaving recklessly as the uncontrolled debris could have fallen on land.

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NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson said: "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.

“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.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China of behaving irresponsibly.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China of behaving irresponsibly. Picture: PA

Meanwhile, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracked the tumbling rocket part, tweeted: "An ocean re-entry was always statistically the most likely. It appears China won its gamble... But it was still reckless."

Normally, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after lift-off and do not go into orbit, however the Chinese rocket had entered orbit on 29 April.

China's official Xinhua News Agency said re-entry occurred at 10:24am local time on Sunday.

"The vast majority of items were burned beyond recognition during the re-entry process," the report said.

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US. Space Command confirmed that the rocket re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula but said "it is unknown if the debris impacted land or water".

People in Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia reported sightings of the Chinese rocket debris on social media, with many posting footage of what appeared to be debris in the early dawn skies over the Middle East.

The 30-metre rocket stage is amongst the biggest space debris to fall to Earth.

China's first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control.

In 2019, the space agency controlled the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.

In March, debris from a Falcon 9 rocket launched by US aeronautics company SpaceX fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast.

China was heavily criticised after sending a missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite in January 2007, creating a large field of hazardous debris imperilling satellites and other spacecraft.

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