Last summer, residents on the island of Borneo were treated to a surprise light show as the core stage of a Chinese rocket fell out of orbit and lit up the night sky. Weighing 21.3 tons upon re-entry, the rocket broke apart into flaming human-made meteors. A local news report shows what appears to be a large fragment of the rocket in a field in West Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on Borneo.
Though there were no reported damages from the uncontrolled re-entry of the Chinese rocket, the incident raised eyebrows in the space community. Analysts had warned that the rocket stage was massive enough for fragments to have reached the earth’s surface in an area roughly 1,200 miles long and 44 miles wide.
The rocket, known as Long March 5B, is China’s largest and was part of the third mission since 2020 to deliver modules to China’s Tiangong space station that’s expected to be up and running by the end of the year. Two previous Long March 5B missions, in 2020 and 2021, led to similar uncontrolled re-entries over the Indian Ocean and Côte d’Ivoire. (These are 25 of the most dangerous things around Earth right now.)
The three Long March rocket core stages are among ten heaviest spacecraft to have crashed uncontrollably back to earth, each weighing 21 to 22 tons. Only four other human-made objects have crashed uncontrollably back to earth were heavier, including two Russian space stations, in 1979 and 1991, and the Space Shuttle Columbia, which exploded on re-entry in 2003, killing its seven-member crew.
Not all re-entries are uncontrolled. Following careful planning, the Russian space station Mir was deorbited into a controlled crash in the South Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand, giving residents of Fiji a spectacular light show. Space debris frequently falls back to earth, but most of it is small enough to burn up in the atmosphere. However, experts warn that the chance of space debris falling and injuring or killing people is not zero.
To identify the largest spacecraft or pieces of space debris to crash to earth in an uncontrolled manner, 24/7 Tempo examined online resources, including Space.com and a log of uncontrolled re-entries of orbital objects like booster rockets, satellites, and spacecraft by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and publisher of “Jonathan’s Space Report,” a newsletter that tracks and describes space launches and satellites.
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