Chinese Long March rocket debris spotted crashing down to Earth over Sarawak skies

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PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - A huge piece of space junk, apparently from the Chinese Long March rocket, has crashed down to Earth – with its fiery re-entry spotted by many over the sky of Sarawak, Malaysia.

The 22.5 tonne core stage of the Long March 5B rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean at around 12.45am yesterday, said United States space agency Nasa.

The Malaysian Space Agency (Mysa) said it detected rocket debris burning up on re-entry before falling in the Sulu Sea north-east of the island of Borneo.

“The debris of the rocket caught fire while entering the Earth’s airspace and the movement of the burning debris also crossed Malaysian airspace and could be detected in several areas including crossing the airspace around the state of Sarawak,” the agency said.

In a statement posted to its official WeChat profile, the China Manned Space Agency later gave coordinates for an impact area in the Sulu Sea, about 35 miles (57km) off the east coast of the Philippines’ Palawan Island.

“Most of its devices were ablated and destroyed during re-entry,” the agency said of the booster rocket.

The dramatic event was spotted by many people in Sarawak, with videos uploaded to social media by users from Sibu, Bintulu, Kuching and more. Many did not realise what they were witnessing, with some even labelling it a meteorite.

A Twitter user with the handle hanifDaslepzz said: “There is a long streak of clouds... the people of Kuching have reported hearing the explosion an hour ago.”

Mysa had previously said the debris from the rocket was unlikely to land in Malaysia.

“Basically, the location of the re-entry of the debris can’t be predicted accurately until a few hours prior to re-entry and in many cases, there will be a vast difference in the forecast due to the change in the physical characteristics of the object during re-entry, including location and speed,” it said last Friday, adding that most of the debris would be burned during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, with only smaller fragments landing on Earth.

Objects generate immense amounts of heat and friction when they enter the atmosphere, which can cause them to burn up and disintegrate. But larger ones such as the Long March 5B may not be destroyed entirely.

The Long March 5B blasted off on July 24 to deliver a laboratory module to the new Chinese space station Tiangong under construction in orbit, marking the third flight of China’s most powerful rocket since its maiden launch in 2020.

The incident led United States officials to chide Beijing for not sharing information about the potentially hazardous object’s descent.

Nasa administrator Bill Nelson said on Twitter: “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance 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.

“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 programme, which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and made China only the third country to put humans in orbit – after Soviet Union/Russia and the US.

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

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