The good news is there have been no reports of injuries or damage after the rocket debris landed on Sunday, May 9, 2021, according to BBC News.
The Chinese state media reported that much of the rocket burned up and that debris landed in the Indian Ocean at 72.47° E and 2.65° N, just west of the Maldives, after reentering the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time, BBC News reports.
That said, U.S. Space Command didn’t confirm the Chinese state media’s report, saying only that the rocket “reentered over the Arabian Peninsula” and that it was “unknown if the debris [had] impacted land or water.”
The debris from the Chinese rocket had been a matter of concern for days.
The Long March 5B, which measured 108 feet tall and weighed 40,000 tons, launched on April 29, 2021, sending a segment of a new Chinese space station into orbit. After the rocket’s fuel ran out, though, it uncontrollably tumbled through space before succumbing to Earth’s gravity, CNN reports.
By May 4, the Pentagon was tracking the rocket, though Defense Department spokesperson Mike Howard said at the time that the entry point into the Earth’s atmosphere couldn’t be narrowed down until hours before reentry, according to an earlier CNN report.
The European Space Agency later predicted a “risk zone” that included “any portion of Earth’s surface between about 41.5 degrees N and 41.5 degrees S. That zone covered all of Africa, all of Australia, almost all of the Americas south of New York, areas of Asia south of Japan, and some of the southernmost European countries, per CNN.
Still, experts assured the public that the risk of damage or injury was small, especially because Earth’s oceans cover most of the planet’s surface. “I don’t think people should take precautions,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN. “The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small — not negligible, it could happen — but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny.”
NASA said China is “failing to meet responsible standards.”
In a statement on the NASA website on Saturday, May 8, NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson — a former astronaut and a former U.S. Senator from Florida — criticized China for letting the debris endanger life on Earth.
“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” Nelson wrote.
“China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris. It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
In general, space agencies and companies around the world avoid this scenario by having rockets conduct controlled reentries or leaving them in so-called “graveyard” orbits.