update: Early Sunday it's been confirmed that China's huge Long March 5B rocket made its out-of-control entry and plunged into the Indian Ocean Saturday night near the Maldives.
China's Manned Space Engineering Office sought to emphasize in an announcement that most of it burned up when it reentered the atmosphere before coming down somewhere west of the Maldives - the nation of archipelagic islands which lies southwest of Sri Lanka and India, some 700 kilometers off the Asian continent.
Map via BBC
US Space Command also confirmed it had reentered Earth over the Arabian Peninsula. NASA immediately blasted China for failing to "meet responsible standards" of space activity and operations. "Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson in a statement published early Sunday.
"China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris," Nelson added.
Claimed observation from Oman which if genuine would imply the reentry was underway with impact over the Indian Ocean https://t.co/Ix6nqUv20d— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 9, 2021
It's as yet unknown if any debris possibly fell on any part of the Maldives island chain, or if it was witnessed by inhabitants.
MNDF Central Area, Coastguard Squadron is active after receiving reports of rocket debris fallen in the Maldivian waters.— Maldives National Defence Force (@MNDF_Official) May 9, 2021
Assuming the debris can be spotted anywhere on the ocean's surface, a recovery effort may be underway by the Maldives Coast Guard.
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CNN is reporting Saturday that the debris from China's Long March 5B Rocket is expected based on current predictions to land somewhere in Turkmenistan, according to the US military. It's been expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere Saturday or Sunday, driving fears that 20 tons of debris could fall on populated areas:
CNN's Jim Sciutto said the "latest information has this coming down to Earth in Turkmenistan in central Asia. The timing of this is tomorrow evening 7pm eastern time.. this would be early Sunday morning hours in central Asia... in potentially populated areas - that's the issue here.
The rocket will be one of the largest objects to descend from low Earth orbit in an uncontrolled re-entry. Coordinates given in a tweet by a popular open source space monitoring site also suggested the rocket would fall over Turkmenistan perhaps on Sunday, however, both the monitor and the US military admit that estimates will "continue to vary wildly."
Latest TIP (as of 2021-05-07 0456Z) for CZ-5B (Long March 5B) (48275 / 2021-035B) shows projected re-entry at 2021-05-08 23:13(UTC) +/- 540 minutes at latitude 38.1 longitude 62.5— Space-Track (@SpaceTrackOrg) May 7, 2021
NOTE: This is a huge, 18 hour window, and the time/location of re-entry will continue to vary wildly
Later revised estimates also pointed to a possible Indian Ocean location, which would be optimal given the risk of debris falling dangerously over inhabited areas on land.
As we described earlier on Friday a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said that authorities are closely monitoring the rocket and played down the risks hyped up by western media.
"To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means that most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low," spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.
This is something which, though very rare, has happened in the recent past. In May of 2020, a Chinese Long March 5B made a similarly uncontrolled re-entry, resulting in debris raining down on inhabited areas of the Ivory Coast.
Eagerly awaiting the Turkmenistan propaganda video of Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov hoisting the Chinese rocket debris over his head. https://t.co/0r4kZpa7Oj— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) May 8, 2021
US Space Command said that it too is carefully tracking the rocket's location during the uncontrolled re-entry, but stressed that it "cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its re-entry," currently projected to happen on Saturday.
The US military went so far as to clarify that no, it does not have orders to shoot down the rocket at this time - though we can imagine plans would change if it were confirmed to be hurling toward New York City or Washington DC. "We have the capability to do a lot of things but we don't have a plan to shoot it down as we speak," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday.
The Long March 5B rocket was launched on April 28 to send key components to China's new next-generation space station. Still, there are already ten more supply missions to the new space station planned, suggesting the likelihood of many more such scenarios to come.