An Out-of-Control Chinese Rocket Has Crashed to Earth—Again

This is the fourth Chinese rocket to hurtle back to Earth, a trend that experts say puts people and property at risk.
A Huge, Out-of-Control Chinese Rocket Will Crash Somewhere on Earth Today
China's Long March 5B rocket takes off on October 31. Image: Getty Images

Debris from China’s most powerful rocket crashed down to on Earth on Friday. It’s the fourth time that an out-of-control Chinese rocket has fallen down to Earth in recent years, an event called an “uncontrolled re-entry.” These present a potential risk to people and infrastructure across a huge swath of our planet, though the odds of any rocket parts hitting a populated area are extremely low.

The out-of-control spacecraft was estimated to potentially fall on a wide range of locations between the northern latitudes of New York and the southern latitudes of New Zealand, according to projections by the Aerospace Corporation, a research nonprofit. At 6:33 a.m., U.S. Space Command confirmed that the rocket body had reentered the atmosphere somewhere over the south-central Pacific Ocean.

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If you feel some deja vu about all this, it’s because every time China has launched their biggest rocket, known as the Long March 5B, its main stage—which is a towering 175 feet tall and weighs in at 21 metric tons—has ended up falling back to our planet on an uncontrolled trajectory, a pattern that has provoked criticism from other space leaders. 

Rockets are made up of stages, or boosters, that are jettisoned once they have done their part to blast a payload into space. Most of these spent parts will then maneuver themselves into paths that end up with atmospheric reentry over the oceans, to minimize the risk of striking a populated area.

For whatever reason, the main stage of Long March 5B is apparently not designed to conduct these controlled reentries, leading to uncertainty over its time and place of impact. The rocket has flown four times, including its most recent launch on Halloween. Debris fell on villages in the Côte d’Ivoire after its first flight in May 2020, causing property damage. The next two stages fell into the Indian Ocean, in April 2021, and into the Pacific Ocean, in July of this year.  

NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently expressed frustration with the rocket’s string of uncontrolled reentries, which are the biggest pieces of spacecraft debris that have fallen on Earth in several decades. 

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” Nelson said in July. “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. Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.” 

While it is very unlikely that this individual rocket harmed anyone, a team of scientists have also warned that there is a 10 percent chance that someone will be killed by falling space debris sometime this decade. 

“Those national governments whose populations are being put at risk should demand that major spacefaring states act, together, to mandate controlled rocket reentries, create meaningful consequences for non-compliance and thus eliminate the risks for everyone” the researchers said in their study.