independent– Nasa has denounced China’s “irresponsible” attitude to space safety after debris from an out-of-control rocket fell to Earth.
The Long March 5B was launched in late April as part of a mission aimed at building China’s planned space station. But the rocket’s booster began an uncontrolled re-entry after going into orbit, sparking fears that debris could hit a populated area.
The China Manned Space Engineering Office said the majority of debris burnt up as it re-entered the atmosphere and was cited by state media as saying that some remnants landed in the Indian Ocean.
The US Space Command confirmed that debris had fallen over the Arabian Peninsula, but said that it was unknown whether it struck land or water.
Nasa administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut, criticised China’s approach to safety standards and transparency.
“Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations,” he said.
“It’s clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
He added that “it was critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space” to ensure the safety and sustainability of future space activities.
The Long March blasted off from China’s Hainan island on 29 April, carrying the first part of the country’s Tianhe module which is to serve as the core of its space station.
It made its re-entry at 3.24am BST, just west of the Maldives, according to Chinese officials.
Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said that the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing and as far south as southern Chile or Wellington, New Zealand.
“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” he said.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson at China’s foreign ministry, said at a press briefing before the rocket’s re-entry that it’s “common practice” for parts of rockets to burn up when they reach the atmosphere.
“The likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities [are] extremely low,” he said.
Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who had been tracking the spacecraft throughout its descent, said “an ocean re-entry was always statistically the most likely” but had not been guaranteed.
“It appears China won its gamble,” he tweeted. “But it was still reckless.”
The first Long March 5B rocket was launched in May last year. Pieces of this rocket struck the Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings.
Ten further missions to complete China’s space station are planned for 2022.