On July 24th, China used a Long March 5B rocket to launch a lab module to its unfinished Tiangong space station. Unlike most rockets, the Long March 5B thrusts its first stage into orbit when delivering its payload. This piece, which is over 100-feet-long and weighs over 22 tons, orbits the Earth for a bit until it comes crashing down to Earth, with no way to control its movement.
Malaysian users on Twitter captured the rocket’s apparent reentry, with some believing it to be a meteor. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believes debris from the rocket could end up near Sibu, Bintulu, or Brunei — three cities located along the northern coast of Borneo — but believes it’s “unlikely” that it landed in a populated area.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson responded to the uncontrolled landing in a statement on Twitter. “The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” Nelson writes. “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the last out-of-control rocket set to come crashing down to Earth. China’s planning to launch its third and final module to Tiangong using a Long March 5B in October, and will use the rocket once again to bring a telescope to space in 2023.