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May 9, 2021

A 21-ton section of a rocket launched by China’s space agency finally returned to Earth’s atmosphere Saturday night, falling above either the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Peninsula, after the booster spent days careering toward the planet in a fast, out-of-control orbit.

 

The core booster of the Long March-5B rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean near the Maldives at 10:24 p.m. Eastern time, the Chinese Manned Space Engineering Office said on social media Saturday.

However, the U.S. military’s Space Command thinks the booster re-entered slightly earlier, emerging over the Arabian Peninsula at 10:15 p.m.

It re-entered the atmosphere after orbiting Earth at 18,000 miles per hour.

China’s space agency said most of the booster’s mass burned up while tearing through the atmosphere, and the rest fell into the ocean, but the U.S. Space Command said it’s unclear whether debris hit land or plunged into water.

Some experts say several tons of debris could have survived the fall to Earth’s surface intact, including heavier components like tanks or engine parts.

The Chinese government launched Long March last week to put a component of China’s new space station into orbit. Rocket boosters usually maneuver themselves to fall into the ocean in a predictable manner after their mission is over, but Long March’s booster entered Earth’s orbit instead, causing it to speed up and circle the planet while gravity gradually pulled it back down.