A Chinese rocket that recently deployed a space station into orbit returned to Earth in an unregulated descent late Saturday night, eventually crashing into the ocean near the Maldives early Sunday morning.
According to Reuters, quoting Chinese state media, it is suspected that the majority of the rocket’s debris burned up in the atmosphere. According to international sources, the missile will return to Earth at 7 a.m. Israel time.
The reentry was fraught in confusion, with observers initially unsure about where the rocket would land or how big the fragments would be upon reentry.
Israel was beyond the range of the rocket’s expected crash sites, which originally ranged from Central America to New Zealand. However, since the majority of the region (more than 90% ) along the projected reentry route was over water, an ocean landing appeared most probable.
The China Manned Space Engineering Office announced on Sunday morning that the rocket’s debris would re-enter the atmosphere somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea at longitude 28.38 degrees east and latitude 34.43 degrees north.
Footage captured by Jordanian news outlet Al Bawaba appeared to show portions of the rocket hurtling across the skies over the Middle East, especially over Qurayyat in Saudi Arabia.
— صحيفة البوابة (@albwaabh) May 9, 2021
One Israeli claimed on social media to have seen it in the sky with visible fire, and shared a video to Twitter.
I JUST SAW IT OVER ISRAEL!!
HARD TO SEE ON VIDEO BUT IT WAS HUGE AND VERY VERY LOW
VISIBLE FIRE pic.twitter.com/0WTUJ1sa3A
— Nad∆vision (@nadavision) May 9, 2021
However, the exact details were unconfirmed. Regardless, the Aerospace Corporation had said that based on the absence of new data sets, the rocket could have reentered earlier than expected. The data sets in question were made when the rocket passed over one of a collection of sensors. However, it seems that it had missed some of them as of late, indicating it might have reentered earlier than initially thought.
#TheMoreYouKnow The data sets we use to make predictions are generated when the object we are tracking passes over one of a collection of sensors across the planet. We will know #LongMarch5B is down when it fails to pass over several of these sensors in a row. https://t.co/EmSWNt4DPa
— The Aerospace Corporation (@AerospaceCorp) May 9, 2021
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell claimed that data indicated it likely reentered somewhere between the Middle East and Australia, and shared several videos on social media from Oman and Haifa, the latter of which seems to be a confirmed sighting.
Claimed observation from Oman which if genuine would imply the reentry was underway with impact over the Indian Ocean https://t.co/Ix6nqUv20d
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 9, 2021
— CYA (@CYA90930064) May 9, 2021
According to SpaceNews, the Long March 5B rocket’s descent was “one of the largest instances of uncontrolled reentry” ever seen, and there were concerns it might crash into a populated area, but it was more likely to crash into an uninhabited area because much of the Earth is uninhabited, with the likelihood of a human being struck by space debris sitting at around one in several trillion.
The 30-meter-long Long March 5B almost landed on US soil the first time it was launched.
According to state media, China launched an unmanned module last month housing what will become living quarters for three crew members on a permanent space station that it expects to complete by the end of 2022.
The module, named “Tianhe,” or “Harmony of the Heavens,” was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan.
Tianhe is one of three major components of what will be China’s first self-developed space station, competing with the only other station in operation — the International Space Station (ISS).
Tianhe serves as the primary living quarters for three crew members aboard the Chinese space station, which is expected to last at least ten years.
The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at a height of 340 to 450 kilometres (211-280 miles).
China would deploy the two other main modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft, in subsequent flights.
Reuters contributed to this report.