After days of sensational speculation about where it would have fallen, China’s largest missile is back on Earth.
The Chinese space agency said that a major part of the rocket returned to Earth’s atmosphere over the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and that most of it burned early Sunday.
And the new China News Agency (Xinhua) said that the return took place on Sunday at 10:24 am Beijing time. The report said: “The vast majority of the elements were burned to be impossible to identify during the re-entry process.”
The US Space Command said it could confirm the missile’s return over the Arabian Peninsula at around 10:15 pm EST, but “it is not known whether the debris collided with the ground or water.”
People in Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have reported seeing Chinese missile debris on social media.
“The re-entry into the ocean has always been the most likely statistical possibility. China seems to have won its gamble … but it’s still reckless,” Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said on Twitter.
NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson issued a statement saying, “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding space debris.”
Experts said the size and speed of the missile made it nearly impossible to determine what would happen when it fell to the ground. The section was nearly 100 feet long and was among the largest pieces of space debris to have fallen to Earth.
The debris came from the bulk of the rocket, which launched the main unit of China’s first permanent space station into orbit. Typically, discarded rocket phases enter the atmosphere shortly after takeoff, usually over water, and do not go into orbit.
On Saturday, models and visualizations from various space research organizations showed that debris could land along many flight paths crossing the globe.
Australia, Africa, parts of Europe, South America, Central America and the United States were all subject to potential re-entry zones, according to Aerospace Corporation, a California-based nonprofit group that operates a center for space research and development.
China on Friday tried to assuage global concerns by saying that the missile is expected to mostly burn on return and pose little threat to people and property on the ground.
Previously:A Chinese missile rushes back to Earth
The Long March 5B rocket carrying the main unit of the Tianhe Space Station lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province, southern China, on April 29, 2021. The space station, known as Heavenly Harmony, will be the first Chinese station to host long-term astronauts.
China plans to launch 10 more launches to bring additional parts of the space station into orbit.
It is not the first missile to fall to Earth in recent memory. CNN reported that last year part of a Chinese missile, one of the largest uncontrolled pieces of space debris, passed directly over Los Angeles and Central Park in New York City before landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
The 18-ton rocket that landed last May was the heaviest debris falling out of control since the Soviet Salyut 7 space station 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.
Contribution: The Associated Press