After launching another part of the national Tiangong space station into orbit, China’s Long March 5B rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a vivid (and at the same time somewhat disturbing) sight for observers. Twitter user Nazri Sulaiman filmed a 27-second clip showing burning debris and explosions in the night sky over Kuching, Malaysia. Suleiman and others initially thought it was a meteor shower, but astronomers identified the debris as the remains of a Chinese rocket.
On Saturday afternoon, the US Space Command confirmed that the Long March 5B rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 12:45 p.m. ET (7:45 p.m. Kyiv time). China said most of the debris burned up on re-entry over the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Malaysia. Unlike many modern rockets, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the Long March 5B cannot restart its engine to complete a controlled reentry. This is a concern every time China launches the Long March 5B, as it is not known where the rocket will return to Earth. During a test flight in 2020, debris from a Long March 5B fell on villages in Côte d’Ivoire, causing material damage.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized China for not sharing specific information about the trajectory of the Long March 5B rocket.
“All space nations should follow established best practices and contribute to sharing such information in advance to ensure reliable predictions of the potential risk of collision with debris, especially for heavy missiles such as the Long March 5B, which have a significant risk of loss of life and property.”
China plans to use the Long March 5B at least 2 more times. In October, the rocket will deliver the third and final part of the Tiangong Station into space, and next year the Xuntian Space Telescope.