Joe Zenhua / AP
China’s space agency said a key part of its largest rocket entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and most of it burned early on Sunday.
“The return of the ocean has always been the most likely statistically,” Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist who has tracked the rocket decaying portion, said on Twitter. “China seems to have won its stunt … but it’s still reckless.”
The new China News Agency (Xinhua) said the return took place at 7:24 pm local time on Saturday. The report said, “The vast majority of the personnel were burned to be unrecognizable during the re-entry process.”
Despite this, NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying, “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding space debris.”
Typically, discarded rocket phases enter the atmosphere shortly after takeoff, usually over water, and do not go into orbit.
The Long March 5B rocket carried the main unit from Tianhe, or Celestial Harmony, into orbit on April 29. China plans to launch another 10 launches to bring additional parts of the space station into orbit.
The stage, which is about 30 meters (100 feet) long, will be among the largest space debris to fall to Earth.
The 18-ton rocket that landed last May was the heaviest debris falling out of control since the former Soviet space station Salyut 7 in 1991.
China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it had lost control. In 2019, the space agency took control of the demolition of its second station, Tiangong-2, in the atmosphere.
In March, the wreckage of a Falcon 9 missile launched by the US airline SpaceX fell to the ground in Washington and on the Oregon coast.
China came under fire after sending a missile to destroy a defunct weather satellite in January 2007, creating a large field of dangerous debris that endangered satellites and other spacecraft.