China defends rocket debris, says it's held to different standards than other countries

On Monday, the Chinese government defended its handling of a rocket booster that burned up over the Indian Ocean. It said it is unfairly being held to different standards than the US and other space programs. NASA administrator and others accused Beijing of acting recklessly by allowing its rocket to fall to Earth seemingly uncontrolled on Sunday. The rocket was carrying a module for its space station into orbit.  The Chinese space agency said there was little risk from the freefalling space debris as most of the 30-meter-long main stage of the Long March 5B rocket burned up above the Maldives.

In this April 29, 2021, file photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a Long March 5B rocket carrying a module for a Chinese space station lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Wenchang in southern China's Hainan Province. Image credit: Ju Zhenhua/Xinhua via AP,

“China has been closely tracking its trajectory and issued statements on the re-entry situation in advance,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said. “There has been no report of harm on the ground. China also shares the results of re-entry predictions through international cooperation mechanisms.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency later clarified that reentry occurred Sunday at 10:24 a.m. Beijing time. “The vast majority of items were burned beyond recognition during the reentry process," the report said.

Hua, the Chinese spokesperson, complained that Beijing was being treated unfairly. She pointed to the reaction to debris from a rocket launched by US aerospace company SpaceX that fell to Earth in Washington and on the Oregon coast in March.

“American media used romantic rhetoric like ‘shooting stars lighting up the night sky,’” she said. “But when it comes to the Chinese side, it’s a completely different approach.”

“We are willing to work with other countries including the United States to strengthen cooperation in the use of outer space, but we also oppose double standards on this issue," Hua said.

China's space agency also said that the core segment of its biggest rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere above the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and that most of it burned up early Sunday.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who tracked the tumbling rocket part, said on Twitter, “An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely. It appears China won its gamble… But it was still reckless.”

People in Jordan, Oman and Saudi Arabia reported sightings of the Chinese rocket debris on social media, with scores of users posting footage of the debris piercing the early dawn skies over the Middle East.

The rocket carried the core module of the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, space station into orbit on 29 April. China plans 10 more launches to complete the construction of the station.

Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit. The roughly 30-meter (100-foot) long rocket stage is among the biggest space debris to fall to Earth. China's space program, with its close military links, hasn’t said why it put the main component of the rocket into space rather than allowing it to fall back to earth soon after discharging its payload, as is usual in such operations.

US reacts

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China in a statement of “failing to meet responsible standards" in handling space debris.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested last week that China had been negligent, and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed that after the re-entry on Sunday.

"Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," Nelson said in a statement.

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


With inputs from wires

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