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Wreckage of Chinese rocket Long March 5B lands west of Maldives in the Indian Ocean

The debris of China’s rocket launched last month plunged back through the atmosphere, landing west of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has re-entered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement on Sunday morning.

It added that most of the components burned up in the re-entry.

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, also confirmed the re-entry. “Everyone else following the #LongMarch5B re-entry can relax. The rocket is down,” it tweeted.

“We believe the rocket went down in the Indian Ocean, but are waiting on official data from @18SPCS,” it added in a separate tweet, referring to a squadron of the US Space Force.

The Long March 5B rocket lifted off on April 29 from China’s Hainan Island with the unmanned Tianhe module, which contains what will become living quarters on a permanent Chinese space station. The rocket is set to be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station.

US and European authorities had been monitoring the rocket, which was travelling at a speed of approximately 13.7km/second. The debris weighted nearly 20 tons and was the largest piece of space junk to fall uncontrolled back to Earth since 1991 and the fourth biggest ever.

A difference of just one minute in the time of re-entry translates to hundreds of kilometres difference on the ground and earlier predictions had the rocket landing in several possible locations from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

According to experts, with most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds that it would land in a populated area were low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower.

In May 2020, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported then.

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

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

Debris from Chinese rocket launches is not uncommon within China. In late April, authorities in the city of Shiyan, Hubei Province, issued a notice to people in the surrounding county to prepare for evacuation as parts were expected to land in the area.