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After warning Israel may be in path, Chinese rocket breaks up over Indian Ocean

Beijing officials say debris fell into sea near the Maldives; uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object had sparked concerns about possible damage and casualties

In this file photo a Long March 5B rocket carrying China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe launches from the Wenchang Space Center on China's southern Hainan Island on November 24, 2020, on a mission to bring back lunar rocks, the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from the moon in four decades (STR / AFP)
In this file photo a Long March 5B rocket carrying China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe launches from the Wenchang Space Center on China's southern Hainan Island on November 24, 2020, on a mission to bring back lunar rocks, the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from the moon in four decades (STR / AFP)

A large segment of a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Indian Ocean on Sunday, the Chinese space agency said, following fevered speculation over where the 18-tonne object would come down.

Officials in Beijing had said there was little risk from the freefalling segment of the Long March-5B rocket, which had launched the first module of China’s new space station into Earth orbit on April 29.

“After monitoring and analysis, at 10:24 (0224 GMT) on May 9, 2021, the last-stage wreckage of the Long March 5B Yao-2 launch vehicle has reentered the atmosphere,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement, providing coordinates for a point in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

It added that most of the segment disintegrated and was destroyed during re-entry.

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket carrying the Tianwen-1 Mars probe lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province, July 23, 2020. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP)

Monitoring service Space-Track, which uses US military data, also confirmed the re-entry.

“Everyone else following the #LongMarch5B re-entry can relax. The rocket is down,” it tweeted.

“We believe the rocket went down in the Indian Ocean, but are waiting on official data from @18SPCS,” it added in a separate tweet, referring to a squadron of the US Space Force.

The segment’s descent matched predictions by some experts that any debris would have splashed down into the ocean, given that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water.

But the uncontrolled re-entry of such a large object had sparked concerns about possible damage and casualties, despite there being a low statistical chance.

“The probability of causing harm… on the ground is extremely low,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.

American and European space authorities were among those tracking its orbits and trying to determine when and where it may come down.

Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted on Saturday: “New 18SPCS Space Force prediction narrows things down to one orbit: Costa Rica, Haiti, Iberia, Sardinia, Italy, Greece and Crete, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand.”

Then US Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin III testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had said the US military had no plans to shoot it down, but suggested that China had been negligent in letting it fall out of orbit.

Last year, debris from another Long March rocket fell on villages in the Ivory Coast, causing structural damage but no injuries or deaths.

To avoid such scenarios, some experts have recommended a redesign of the Long March-5B rocket — which does not have the ability to control its descent from orbit.

“An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” Harvard-based astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted.

“It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless.”

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