Long March 5B Stage Reenters North of Maldives as NASA Administrator Nelson Criticizes Chinese Actions as Irresponsible

Long March 5B launches the Tianhe space station core module on April 29, 2021. (Credit: CASC)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A Chinese Long March 5B reentered the Earth atmosphere on Sunday over the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives, ending more than a week of global anxiety that the massive booster could spread debris over a populated area.

The 18th Space Control Squadron confirmed the 21-metric ton stage reentered the atmosphere and fell into the ocean north of the island chain at latitude 22.2, longitude 50.0 on Sunday, May 9 at 0214 UTC. There have been no reports of injuries.

While most of the booster was expected to burn up, some parts of the rocket were expect to reach the Earth’s surface. A Long March 5B first stage scattered debris over the Ivory Coast in May 2020.

The stage had been in orbit for about 10 days after it launched the Tianhe core module of China’s first permanent space station on April 29.

In Washington, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement on Saturday criticizing China’s handling of the matter.

“Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations.

“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.”

Chinese officials downplayed the risk to life and property as the booster tumbled out of control. But, they said little else as governments around the world scrambled to determine when and where the stage would reenter the atmosphere.

It’s not known whether Chinese controllers attempted to deorbit the rocket over a remote part of the ocean before they lost contact with it. It’s not even clear whether Long March 5B has a controlled de-orbit capability.

A Long March 5B stage orbited the Earth last year before making a similar uncontrolled reentry over Africa. Ivory Coast residents reported flashes, a sonic boom and pieces of metal falling from the sky. There were no reports of injuries.

The Long March 5B is part of China’s most powerful booster family. The variant is capable of launching about 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit.

In early April, one of Falcon 9’s much smaller second stages that SpaceX was unable to deorbit reentered in a spectacular nighttime display over Oregon and Washington. A helium tank was subsequently recovered from a Washington farm.