The largest piece of a rocket that launched part of China’s space station into orbit fell back to Earth, with the timing and destination of its eventual crash remaining somewhat unknown close to its reentry.
Rocket cores or the first-stage normally do not make it into orbit and reenter not long after launch, typically falling into the ocean.
The Long March 5B rocket carried the main module of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, into orbit on April 29. China’s space agency announced Sunday the core segment of the rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and that most of it burned up.
The roughly 100-foot-long stage was anticipated to be among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth. It was highly unlikely the rocket piece will fall over land but international organizations and the U.S. Department of Defense were tracking the object closely.
Prior to the reentry, China’s space agency did not say whether the core stage of the huge Long March 5B rocket was being controlled or was making an out-of-control descent. Last May, another Chinese rocket fell uncontrolled into the Atlantic Ocean off West Africa.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbing said Chinese authorities will release information about the re-entry of the rocket, expected over the weekend, in a “timely manner.”
Wang said China “pays great attention to the re-entry of the upper stage of the rocket into the atmosphere.”
The U.S. Space Command 18th Space Control Squadron tracked the location of the Long March 5B core, providing daily updates on Space-track.org.
“U.S. Space Command is aware of and tracking the location of the Chinese Long March 5B in space, but its exact entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” Lt. Col. Angela Webb, with U.S. Space Command public affairs, told CBS News on Tuesday.
The core was orbiting the Earth about every 90 minutes at over 17,000 mph.
Our latest prediction for CZ-5B rocket body reentry is:— The Aerospace Corporation (@AerospaceCorp) May 6, 2021
🚀09 May 2021 03:43 UTC ± 16 hours
Reentry will be along one of the ground tracks shown here. It is still too early to determine a meaningful debris footprint. Follow this page for updates: https://t.co/p2AU9zE3y2 pic.twitter.com/MgzRAOTJnk
U.S. Space Command provided updates on the location and timing of the object multiple times a day at Space-track.org, a space debris tracking website.
The Pentagon said it monitored the rocket but had no plans to shoot it down because it would cause more debris.
The nonprofit Aerospace Corp. is also tracking the large space junk and expects the debris to hit the Pacific Ocean near the Equator after passing over eastern U.S. cities. Its orbit covers a swath of the planet from New Zealand to Newfoundland.
The research facility is posting updates on the timing and debris area here.
China plans 10 more launches to carry additional parts of its space station into orbit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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