China says remains of rocket booster fall into Philippines sea

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Debris from a rocket that boosted part of China’s new space station into orbit fell into the sea in the Philippines on Sunday, the Chinese government announced.

Most of the final stage of the Long March-5B rocket burned up after entering the atmosphere at 12:55 a.m., the China Manned Space Agency reported. The agency said earlier the booster would be allowed to fall unguided.

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The announcement gave no details of whether remaining debris fell on land or sea but said the “landing area” was at 119 degrees east longitude and 9.1 degrees north latitude. That is in waters southeast of the Philippine city of Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan.

There was no immediate word from Philippine authorities about whether anyone on the ground was affected.

US Defense Department officials chided Beijing for not sharing information on the potentially hazardous object’s descent.

US Space Command “can confirm the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5B (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approx 10:45 am MDT on 7/30,” the US military unit said on Twitter, referring to China’s official name.

“We refer you to the #PRC for further details on the reentry’s technical aspects such as potential debris dispersal+ impact location,” it said.

The Long March 5B rocket was used last Sunday to launch an uncrewed spacecraft, named Wentian, carrying the second of three modules China needed to complete its new Tiangong space station.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson criticized Beijing on Twitter Saturday, saying that the failure to share the details of the rocket’s descent was irresponsible and risky.

“All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance,” Nelson wrote, “to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”

He added: “Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth”.

The Tiangong space station is one of the crown jewels of Beijing’s ambitious space program, which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and made China only the third nation to put humans in orbit.

The new module, propelled by the Long March 5B, successfully docked with Tiangong’s core module on Monday and the three astronauts who had been living in the main compartment since June successfully entered the new lab.

China has faced criticism for allowing rocket stages to fall to Earth uncontrolled twice before. NASA accused Beijing last year of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

The country’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2016 after Beijing confirmed it lost control. An 18-ton rocket fell uncontrolled in May 2020.

China also faced criticism after using a missile to destroy one of its defunct weather satellites in 2007, creating a field of debris that other governments said might jeopardize other satellites.

The July 24 launch of the Long March-5B, China’s most-powerful rocket, carried the Wentian laboratory into orbit. It was attached on Monday to the Tianhe main module, where three astronauts live.
The remains of a separate cargo spacecraft that serviced the station fell into a predetermined area of the South Pacific after most of it burned up on reentry, the government announced earlier.

China has poured billions of dollars into space flight and exploration as it seeks to build a program that reflects its stature as a rising global power.

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