Special Report

The 10 Largest Spacecrafts to Crash Back to Earth

5. CZ-5B-Y1 (Long March 5B) core stage
> Reentry Weight: 21.6 tons
> Re-entry location: Côte d’Ivoire
> Date of crash: May 11, 2020

The CZ-5B-Y1 Long March 5B core rocket stage became the heaviest object to plunge to earth in an uncontrolled manner since the 39-ton Soviet Salyut 7 space station rained debris over Argentina in 1991. Fragments from the rocket stage fell onto at least two villages in the West African country of Ivory Coast, though no injuries were reported. All three Long March 5B rocket missions have involved uncontrolled reentries of massive rocket stages.

4. Salyut 7
> Reentry Weight: 39 tons
> Re-entry location: Argentina
> Date of crash: Feb. 7, 1991

After nine years in orbit, the Soviet space station Salyut 7 with an attached Kosmos 1686 unmanned spacecraft became at the time the largest spacecraft to plunge back to earth. Efforts by Soviet engineers to guide the de-crewed Salyut-7/Kosmos-1686 complex into the Atlantic Ocean in a controlled descent failed. The space station complexes broke up on its descent, showering debris near the Argentinean town of Capitán Bermúdez.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

3. Saturn S-II-13 (Skylab rocket)
> Reentry Weight: 45.1 tons
> Re-entry location: Atlantic Ocean (near Madeira)
> Date of crash: January 11, 1975

The massive S-II rocket stage was part of the modified Saturn V rocket that put Skylab, the first U.S. space station, into orbit. After circling the planet for nearly two years, the S-II made an uncontrolled re-entry over the North Atlantic near the Portuguese autonomous region of Madeira, an archipelago about 320 miles west of Morocco.

Source: MPI / Archive Photos via Getty Images

2. Skylab space station
> Reentry Weight: 75.7 tons
> Re-entry location: Western Australia/Indian Ocean
> Date of crash: July 11, 1979

Skylab was the first U.S. space station, designed as a low-orbit scientific research output. Though it was initially designed to last years, the station was crewed for only a few months in 1973 and 1974. By 1978, Skylab’s orbit was decaying, and due to budget constraints NASA had failed to build any control mechanisms for a controlled re-entry. A Hail Mary attempt to force the station to tumble into the Indian Ocean by strategically firing its booster rockets almost worked, but some of the debris landed in western Australia.

Source: Getty Images / Getty Images News via Getty Images

1. NASA Space Shuttle Columbia
> Reentry Weight: 106.4 tons
> Re-entry location: USA (Louisiana, Texas)
> Date of crash: February 1, 2003

The Space Shuttle Columbia is the heaviest spacecraft to have plunged back from orbit, also the only one that cost lives. (The NASA Space Shuttle Challenger explosion of 1986 occurred during takeoff.) All seven crew members were killed when Columbia exploded over Louisiana and east Texas. The cause of the disaster was later linked to a piece of foam insulation that had broken off the shuttle’s propellant tank during the shuttle’s descent to Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle was in a controlled descent until it broke apart, but the consequences — raining space debris on land — were similar to uncontrolled crashes.

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