Chinese rocket debris lands in Indian Ocean after free fall back down to Earth

Remnants of a Chinese rocket have careered back to Earth and plummeted into the Indian Ocean, China’s state-run media has reported.

Debris from the rocket, which was used to launch the first module of China's new space station last month, allegedly landed west of the Maldives.

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Chinese state media said parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 Beijing time (02:24 GMT) on Sunday and landed at a location 72.47° East and 2.65° North.

The majority of the Long March-5b vehicle was destroyed during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, reported the Chinese Manned Space Engineering office.

However, the empty core stage - estimated to weigh between 18 and 22 tonnes - began losing altitude last week. 

"Responsible space behaviours”

During the rocket’s flight, Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

At 18 tonnes, it would be one of the largest items in decades to have an undirected dive into the atmosphere, as US and European tracking sites monitored it’s uncontrolled fall as it left the Earth's orbit.

Ahead of it’s plummet into Earth, the White House called for “responsible space behaviours”, as anxiety heightened around whether debris could land on inhabited land. 

"China is failing to meet responsible standards”

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said China had behaved irresponsibly, as it allowed for the rocket to fall out of orbit.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut, agreed. He said: “It is clear that 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.”

US Space Command said in a statement that it could "confirm the Chinese Long March-5b re-entered over the Arabian Peninsula" adding that it was "unknown if the debris impacted land or water.”

China’s media played down concerns from Western countries, referring to it as "hype" and predicted the debris would fall somewhere in international waters.

Space experts also predicted the risk of people being struck by the falling debris was slim because much of the Earth is covered by ocean and uninhabited land.

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon. In April, the authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, warned people living in neighbouring counties to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.