NASA, the US space agency, slammed China on Sunday for failing to meet “responsible standards regarding its space debris” after remnants of a Chinese rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean.
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” CNN quoted NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson’s statement.
“China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” he added.
Remnants of China’s biggest rocket landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday. Most of the huge Long March 5B rocket, however, burned upon re-entering the atmosphere, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a post on WeChat, before it landed just west of the Maldives.
It was unclear if any debris had landed on the Maldives. The US Space Command said the Long March 5B had re-entered Earth over the Arabian Peninsula.
The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.
The rocket, which was about 108 feet tall and weighs nearly 40,000 pounds, had launched a piece of a new Chinese space station into orbit on April 29.
After its fuel was spent, the rocket had been left to hurtle through space uncontrolled until Earth’s gravity dragged it back to the ground. Generally, most rockets used to lift satellites and other objects into space conduct more controlled reentries that aim for the ocean, or they are left in so-called “graveyard” orbits that keep them in space for decades or centuries.
But the Long March rocket is designed in a way that “leaves these big stages in low orbit,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University.
Its re-entry prompted international concern about where it might land. Scientists said the risk to humans was astronomically low, but it was not impossible for it to land in an inhabited area.
McDowell told Reuters that the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.
Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.
“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn`t address this,” said McDowell.
The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, dismissed as “Western hype” concerns the rocket was “out of control” and could cause damage.
“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular media briefing on May 7.
China is expected to carry out more launches in its space station programme in the coming weeks as it aims to complete the space station project next year.
(With agency inputs)