Space debris floating around earth, not to scale but accurate in density

Uncontrolled debris from Chinese rocket hits Earth

Debris from a rocket launching part of China’s new space station has fallen into the sea in the Philippines, shortly after scientists calculated the risk of potential deaths from fallen space objects.

China's space agency has said that most remains of the Long March 5 burnt in the atmosphere, identifying the Sulu Sea in the Pacific as the re-entry location. 

The announcement did not detail whether the remains of the rocket fell on land or sea but it identified the “landing area” as 119 degrees east longitude and 9.1 degrees north latitude, which equates to waters south-east of the Philippine city of Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan.

The Long March 5B rocket was launched on Sunday, carrying Wentian (Quest for the Heavens’), the second of three modules that will make up China's new Tiangong space station, where three astronauts are currently living. The 23-tonne lab module will be used for scientific experiments and it is the heaviest single-module spacecraft currently in space, according to the state-owned Global Times. 

Philippine authorities did not immediately confirm whether anyone on the ground was affected, but last week, a study in Nature Astronomy, identified a 1 in 10 chance of one or more casualties from space debris occurring over the next 10 years.

In May 2020, properties in Ivory Coast were damaged by uncontrolled space debris.  

China Space Station

China Space Station /CMS

Image credit: CMS

In the past, China has faced criticism for allowing rocket stages to fall to Earth uncontrolled.

Last year, Nasa accused Beijing of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” after parts of an 18-ton Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean. Four years before, the country’s first space station crashed into the Pacific Ocean and, in 2007, China came under pressure after using a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites, creating a field of debris that other governments said might jeopardise other satellites.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson criticised Beijing on Saturday, saying the failure to share the details of the rocket’s descent was irresponsible and risky.

“All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance,” Nelson tweeted. “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth."

The uncontrolled return of rockets into Earth has raised questions about responsibility for space junk.

Although the Chinese government claimed that the rocket's re-entry would pose little risk to anyone on the ground because it would most likely land in the sea, there have previously been calls by Nasa for the Chinese space agency to design rockets to disintegrate into smaller pieces upon re-entry, as is the international norm.

There has been considerable discussion by space agencies, lawmakers and private companies about how to tackle the problem of space debris, ranging from policy suggestions (such as the introduction of orbital-use fees) to high-tech active space clean-ups (using satellites armed with claws, nets, magnets and other devices).

In order to address the issue of space junk, the European Space Agency is planning a mission to attempt the capture and removal of space debris with a four-armed robot, while the UN issued a set of Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines in 2010, subsequently reinforced in 2018. However, these are guidelines only and are thus not legally binding and do not give specifics as to how mitigation activities should be implemented or controlled.

With Nasa considering a 2031 retirement for the ISS and Russia announcing its plans to withdraw from the station even earlier, China's Tiangong could soon become the only functional space station in orbit around the Earth. 

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