The carefully watched crash landing of debris from a Chinese rocket has narrowly avoided striking a popular tourist destination in the Indian Ocean, according to Chinese officials.
The China National Space Administration confirmed the booster from Long March 5B re-entered earth's atmosphere at 2.24am UTC time (12.24pm AEST) on Sunday, but has yet to release official data.
Initial reports from Chinese state media indicate the debris landed at longitude 72.47 degrees east and latitude 2.65 degrees north, not far from the Maldives.
The US Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron gave different coordinates however – longitude 50 degrees east and latitude 22.2 degrees north – north of the Maldives.
Several videos from the area shared online purport to show a fiery blaze believed to be debris travelling a high speed across the sky in the Middle East.
No injuries have been reported and it is believed a significant portion of the debris was destroyed when it re-entered the earth's atmosphere.
It's estimated the debris descended at a speed of about 29,000km/h.
The volume of debris that fell into the ocean is still unknown but China has come under fire for the potentially dangerous re-entry.
'China won its gamble'
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, described the close call as "reckless".
The US Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron has now confirmed that the CZ-5B-Y2 reentered over the Indian Ocean. They say 'north of the Maldives' but give a position of 50E 22.2N which is in the Rub al Khali desert of Saudi Arabia.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 9, 2021
"An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely. It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless," he tweeted following the landing Sunday afternoon.
With most of the Earth's surface covered by water, the odds of a populated area on land being hit were low. Nonetheless, uncertainty over the rocket's orbital decay and China's failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fuelled anxiety.
In an earlier tweet, he said it would be an anxious wait to see the impact in the Maldives.
"If correct will be interesting to see if we get reports from there," he wrote.
The Space Track Org Twitter page, run by the US Space Command, told those following the re-entry to "relax" after its landing was confirmed.
"Everyone else following the Long March 5B re-entry can relax. The rocket is down," it said. It followed some tense moments when trackers lost the space junk momentarily.
NASA hits out at China
The US space agency also chided China for the seemingly irresponsible launch.
"Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut, said in a statement after the re-entry.
"It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris."
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) May 9, 2021
The event was one of the largest ever uncontrolled re-entires in history, and experts feared rocket parts could have crashed down on populated parts of the globe.
China launched an unmanned module on Thursday (local time) containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.
The module, named "Tianhe", or "Harmony of the Heavens", was launched on the Long March 5B, China's largest carrier rocket.
The core of the Long March 5B then entered a temporary orbit before beginning its unpredictable descent back to earth.
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