Chinese Rocket Debris Hits Ocean Near Maldives

Image: Xinhau

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

Debris from an out-of-control rocket from China hit the Indian Ocean near the Maldives on Saturday, causing NASA to criticize China for not meeting “responsible standards.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement:Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

Why This Matters: Tiny pieces of space junk clutter Earth’s orbit and can fall out of orbit easily. Yet most doesn’t make it back down to land, instead, it incinerates upon reentering the atmosphere.

The rocket is one of the largest objects to recently hit the Earth after falling out of orbit, after an April 2018 incident in which a piece of a Chinese space lab crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Most of this Long March 5B rocket burned up in the atmosphere and landed in the middle of the ocean. But these larger objects can reach the Earth’s surface, threatening people on the ground, especially because international space communities couldn’t predict where in the world it could land. 

It’s Not Rocket Science: The Long March 5B rocket was about 108 feet tall, weighing nearly 40,000 pounds. It had launched a part of a Chinese space station into orbit, before using up its fuel and then zooming into space until gravity brought it back to Earth. 

Most times, rockets that bring satellites into space either have a controlled re-entry back to Earth, aiming for the ocean or stay in orbit in perpetuity. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, said that the Long March rocketleaves these big stages in low orbit.”

There was a low—but real— possibility that the rocket would hit a populated area, but because most of the Earth’s surface is covered with ocean, it was unlikely to cause a total catastrophe. 

Still, McDowell emphasized that there are ways to prevent this type of danger:There’s no international law or rule — nothing specific — but the practice of countries around the world has been: ‘Yeah, for the bigger rockets, let’s not leave our trash in orbit in this way.'”

China’s Space Race: As the BBC explained, China has bridled at the suggestion that it has been negligent in allowing the uncontrolled return of so large an object.

Commentary in the country’s media had described Western reports about the potential hazards involved as “hype” and predicted the debris would fall somewhere in international waters.

China’s space ambitions are well established. 

  • The country has poured billions of dollars into its space efforts, and in 2019 it became the first country to send an uncrewed rover to the far side of the Moon.
  • President Xi Jinping has also thrown his support behind the endeavours and state media has frequently cast the “space dream” as one step in the path to “national rejuvenation”.

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