Large mysterious pieces of wreckage were discovered in Southeast Asia over the weekend, and there is growing evidence that they came from a Chinese rocket that crashed to Earth out of control.
The thruster of China’s 25-ton Long March 5B rocket launched a new segment of the country’s space station into orbit in late July. So instead of pushing itself into the Pacific Ocean — a standard practice called controlled re-entry — the thruster entered Earth’s orbit and slowly lost altitude over the course of a week, ensuring it would drop randomly in an unpredictable location.
On Saturday, the thruster succumbed to gravity and crashed to Earth, breaking up in the atmosphere. Soon photos of stray objects that appear to be parts of the rocket emerged from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – along the path of the rocket’s uncontrolled descent.
Only China can officially confirm that these parts belong to its rocket, but orbital debris experts say they have no doubt the mystery objects are pieces of Long March 5B.
“They sure look like rocket parts to me,” Ted Muelhaupt, a consultant to the Aerospace Corporation’s Office of Chief Engineering, told Insider, adding, “I have no reason to dispute that they are pieces of this rocket.”
There is roughly a 10% chance that the debris will hit one or more people within a decade, according to a study published in the journal Nature in July.
Even if they don’t hit anyone, it’s dangerous to approach pieces of spacecraft that have fallen into the atmosphere because rocket fuel can remain in them.
The photos suggest that the booster disintegrated piece by piece as it fell.
In the village of Pengadang, near Balaikarangan, on the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo, residents discovered a large rounded object similar to the Chinese rocket’s center stage. The image above comes from images from the Borneo News Network.
“There’s a picture of the big piece at the end of the fuel tank in a field that is very convincing. It’s the right diameter. It looks like a piece that survived reentry – and it’s right in the way of reentry,” he said. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an avid tracker of Earth-orbiting objects, told Insider.
Muelhaupt agreed that the object looks like the dome of a fuel tank.
Two smaller pieces of debris were discovered in the small towns of Batu Niah and Sepupok in Sarawak, on the Malay side of Borneo, according to Borneo News Network and The Star, a Malaysian news agency.
The photos show “a small piece of metal dug into the ground, which could very well be a little bit of the rocket, but it’s very hard to tell,” McDowell said.
The rocket launch also dropped debris
Images posted on China’s Weibo social media platform claimed to show pieces of the rocket’s fairing, which falls during launch, in the Mindoro Strait in the Philippines. The photos, which Insider has not independently verified, show people pulling panels out of the water marked with the same Chinese flag and the space agency’s blue symbol that are on the rocket’s fairing.
On Wednesday, the Philippine Space Agency released a statement saying that the torn sheet of metal found by a fisherman off the coast of Mamburao was part of the rocket’s fairing. The agency also said parts of the falling propellant may have landed on shore in the Sulu Sea.
McDowell and Muelhaupt also said they believe these images show parts of the rocket’s fairing, launched during launch.
So when the rocket’s booster fell from space, its path of descent took it straight over the Mindoro Strait.
“That means we were hit twice by debris from this launch: at the beginning and at the end of the rocket’s flight,” said Jay Batongbacal, a professor at the Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. Sea, told Philippine news agency The Inquirer. “This shows that the risk is higher for us because we are under the flight path of most Chinese rocket launches,” he said.
However, no government agency reported debris from the uncontrolled fall in the Philippines.
This is the third time that China has launched a Long March 5B rocket and allowed its body to fall to Earth wildly. In May 2021, pieces of another Long March 5B landed in the Indian Ocean. And in May 2020, another launch ended in an uncontrolled fall that dumped debris near two villages in Ivory Coast, leading to reports of property damage.
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