death from above

Congratulations, You Weren’t Crushed by Space Debris Today

The debris was from this Long March 5B rocket, seen here being launched by China’s space agency on April 29. Photo: China OUT/STR/AFP via Getty Images

This weekend’s most exciting global guessing game — when and where will debris from a Chinese space rocket land and possibly crush people to death after it reenters Earth’s atmosphere — has ended. Just after midnight Saturday, the U.S. Space Force 18th Space Control Squadron confirmed that the very large Chinese Long March 5B rocket in question, which had been used by China to launch a space-station module into orbit late last month, came back to earth and fell into the Indian Ocean north of the Maldives — though it’s not yet clear if any parts landed on any land.

For days, scientists and the curious and/or death-wary public had been trying to determine where the rocket might land, including a shrinking range of possibilities as reentry approached. As it turned out, the rocket — which, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, was the fourth-largest manmade object to have an uncontrolled reentry in history — reentered over the Arabian Peninsula, and people in Israel and Oman were apparently able to see the debris rocket across the sky:

This news means that, if you are reading this post, you were not unlucky enough to be randomly killed by haphazard space debris this weekend (or, for that matter, haphazard planning by a major world power’s space agency regarding what would happen to their space debris).

On the other hand, it seems likely, as the New York Times notes, that everyone will have more opportunities to be unlucky in the near future, thanks to China’s widely criticized practice of allowing uncontrolled re-entry of its space rockets:

Last year, the first launch of a Long March 5B rocket lifted a prototype of China’s crewed space capsule. The booster from that rocket also made an uncontrolled re-entry, with some debris raining down on a village in Ivory Coast.

With more large pieces of China’s space station scheduled to go to orbit, more launches of the Long March 5B are expected through 2022. Unless there is a change to how China operates it, the odds that someone will be hurt by a piece of a falling booster will grow.

So unidentified flying objects aren’t the only thing the people of the world need to be concerned about — unidentified object landings are, too.

Congratulations, You Weren’t Crushed by Space Debris Today