Chunks of China's Powerful Rocket Fall Back to Earth, Narrowly Missing NYC

Jennifer Leman
Photo credit: STR - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • The large rocket stage of China's Long March 5B has reentered Earth's atmosphere and fallen back to Earth after a successful launch on May 5.
  • The almost 20-ton rocket stage is the largest uncontrolled object to fall from low-Earth orbit since the Soviet space station Salyut 7's unguided reentry in 1991.
  • Had the hefty rocket made its descent into Earth's atmosphere sooner, parts of it could have fallen across New York City.

The large core stage of China's Long March 5B rocket reentered Earth's atmosphere and plummeted out of control to the surface earlier this week. At 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, it's the largest piece of space junk to fall uncontrolled from low-Earth orbit in almost 30 years.

Initial reports suggested the almost 20-ton rocket stage had fallen into the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Africa. But new reports from social media and some African news organizations suggest pieces of the rocket may have been strewn across parts of Cote d'Ivoire.

The heavy-lift rocket, which was carrying China's prototype crew capsule, successfully launched from Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island off the country's southern coast.

Typically, rockets have a first stage that propels them for the first few minutes after launch, while a second stage helps the payload reach orbit. But Long March 5B was different. Instead, the rocket had a single core stage and four boosters that propelled it off the launch pad.

The speed and angle of the rocket's decaying orbit made it difficult to track. Predictions spanned a range of sites from New York City to New Zealand, according to Space Flight Now. The U.S. Air Force's 18th Space Control Squadron, which tracks manmade objects in orbit around Earth, confirmed the rocket's reentry was on May 11 at around 11:33 a.m. EST.

Initial reports claimed the spacecraft had plummeted into the ocean off Africa's west coast. Now, two villages in Cote d'Ivoire have reported finding what they believe to be debris from the fallen rocket stage, according to images posted to social media and reported in the French language news organization Afrik Soir.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted that the location of one fallen object—a nearly 40-foot-long pipe, seen in a number of photos—is "directly on the CZ-5B re-entry track."



While there's no official word on whether these pieces of debris are actually parts of the fallen rocket stage, it's looking more and more likely.

Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, tweeted May 12 that the International Monitoring System's infrasound network—primarily designed to detect nuclear blasts in the atmosphere—registered signals of debris traveling at supersonic speeds in the area.

What's the precedent here? In 1991, the Soviet Salyut 7 space station tumbled back to Earth, breaking up over Argentina. The Mir Space Station, which was decommissioned in 2001 and broke apart during a controlled reentry above the waters near Fiji, is the largest manmade object to reenter Earth's atmosphere. And NASA's Skylab space station famously pummeled a small Australian town in 1979.

If the Long March 5B core stage reentered Earth's atmosphere just 15 minutes earlier, chunks of it very likely could have fallen across New York City, Ars Technica reported.

This isn't the first time China has played fast and loose with falling rocket parts. In March, when China launched its Long March 3B rocket, a booster crash-landed downrange in the Guizhou province. Late last year, another Long March 3B rocket ferried two satellites into orbit, but dropped sections of its boosters on a settlement near the launch site.

In 2018, yet another booster fell from the sky after the launch of a Long March 3B rocket and exploded just outside of a small town in the Guangxi province. Witnesses posted stunning video clips of the fallen booster to social media.

In addition to smashing into the ground with unbelievable force, these boosters often still have traces of the toxic propellant hydrazine in them. As tempting as it is, if one falls into your yard, don't try to get a closer look.

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