An “out of control” Chinese rocket has landed in the Indian Ocean, China says.
The rocket, called Long March 5B, was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on 29 April to carry Tianhe – the first module of China’s future space station – into orbit.
It re-entered the atmosphere at 3.24am UK time, with the bulk of its components destroyed at that point, according to Chinese state media.
The point of impact was somewhere southwest of India and Sri Lanka, they added.
While the timing of the landing had been pinpointed quite closely, the possible landing site had been unclear until the last minutes of the rocket’s descent.
At one stage it was thought the debris trail could fall as far north as New York, Madrid, or Beijing, and as far south as Chile and New Zealand.
Most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water so the odds of the debris falling on land were low, and the likelihood of hitting people was even lower, experts had said.
Nevertheless, uncertainty over the rocket’s condition and the vagueness of China’s location forecasts had many people looking anxiously towards the sky as the expected landing grew closer.
There was some criticism of China’s handling of the situation, with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin saying: “There should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode and make sure that we take those kinds of things into consideration as we plan and conduct operations.”
Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters news agency that, since chunks of NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have adjusted their spacecraft design to avoid uncontrolled entries.
“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” he said.
Chinese state media had played down fears that the rocket could cause damage, saying it was “not worth panicking about”, suggesting it would fall somewhere in international waters.
Pieces from the first Long March, launched last year, fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings but causing no injuries.
The rocket launch is part of China’s increasingly ambitious space programme, with Beijing planning at least 10 similar launches to carry equipment into orbit.