BEIJING — A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-tonne object would come down.
Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.
“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has reentered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.
It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during re-entry.
Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses U.S. military data, also confirmed the re-entry.
“Everyone else following the #LongMarch5B re-entry can relax. The rocket is down,” it tweeted.
The segment’s descent matched predictions by some experts that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 per cent of the planet is covered by water.
But the uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object had sparked concerns about possible damage and casualties, despite there being a low statistical chance.
American and European space authorities were among those tracking its orbits and trying to determine when and where it may come down.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had said the U.S. military had no plans to shoot it down, but suggested that China had been negligent in letting it fall out of orbit.
Last year, debris from another Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.
“An ocean re-entry was always statistically the most likely,” Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted.
“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”
McDowell had said earlier that China should redesign the Long March-5B to avoid such scenarios.