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Chinese missile debris lands in the Indian Ocean, NASA criticizes

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The Long March-5B Y2 rocket with the core module of China’s Tianhe space station will launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China’s Hainan Province on April 29, 2021. China Daily via REUTERS

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By Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – Remnants of China’s largest missile landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday. Most of its components were destroyed on re-entry into the atmosphere. This ended speculation about where the rubble would hit, but US criticism of a lack of transparency.

The coordinates given by the Chinese state media with reference to the China Manned Space Engineering Office have established the point of impact in the ocean west of the Maldives archipelago.

Debris from the long March 5B has made some people look cautiously at the sky since it was fired from the Chinese island of Hainan on April 29, but the China Manned Space Engineering Office said most of the debris was in the atmosphere been burned.

State media reported that parts of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time (0224 GMT) and landed at a location with coordinates of longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north.

The US space command confirmed the missile’s re-entry over the Arabian Peninsula but said it was not known whether the debris hit land or water.

“The exact location of the impact and the span of the debris, both unknown at the time, will not be published by the US Space Command,” said a statement on its website.

The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, parts of the first Long March 5B fell on the Ivory Coast and damaged several buildings. No injuries were reported.

“Space nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth from re-entry of space objects and maximize transparency regarding these operations,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut selected for the role in March , in a statement after re-entry.

“It is clear that China is not meeting responsible standards for its space debris.”

FEAR OF THE POTENTIAL DEBRIS ZONE

With most of the earth’s surface covered in water, the likelihood of hitting populated areas on land was slim, and experts said the likelihood of injury was even lower.

However, uncertainty about the missile’s disintegration in orbit and China’s failure to provide stronger assurances in advance of reentry fueled fear.

“It is important that China and all space nations and trading companies in space act responsibly and transparently to ensure the safety, stability and long-term sustainability of space activities,” said Nelson.

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the potential rubble zone could be as far south as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

Since large parts of NASA’s Skylab space station fell out of orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have tried to avoid such uncontrolled reentries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.

“It makes the Chinese missile designers look lazy that they haven’t brought this up,” said McDowell.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid that has been dismissed as “Western hype”, fears the missile is “out of control” and could cause damage.

“It is common worldwide for upper rocket stages to burn upon re-entry into the atmosphere,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular press conference on May 7th.

“To the best of my knowledge, the upper stage of this missile has been deactivated, meaning that most of its parts will burn on re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aerospace or ground facilities and activities extremely small,” Wang said at the time.

The rocket, which put an unmanned Tianhe module into orbit that contains living quarters for three crew members on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by ten more missions through 2022 to complete the station.

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Steven Gregory