A Chinese rocket launched last year has fallen back to Earth, with eyewitnesses catching it blazing a path to the surface over India Saturday.
The third stage of a (Chang Zheng) Long March 3B (CZ-3B) was originally launched February 4, 2021 from China’s Xichang satellite launch center. The rocket made it to orbit, where it may have been meant to stay for eons, circling the Earth as another hunk of space junk.
But after about a year in orbit it began to slowly lose altitude and energy with each cycle around our planet.
“Every time the rocket went through perigee it lost some energy due to drag from the atmosphere, and so it didn’t go as high to apogee on the next loop: the apogee steadily decreases until you get reentry,” explained astronomer and leading orbit-watcher Jonathan McDowell on Twitter.
The Aerospace Corporation estimates that the rocket re-entered the atmosphere around 6:30 UTC on Saturday. Video shows blazing debris streaking through the skies over Maharashtra state in India.
The spectacle was initially mistaken for meteors, but rocket remains that made it all the way to the ground were later recovered.
McDowell says a large, three-meter ring found near the community of Sindewahi is consistent with the structural parts from a rocket.
Typically, spent rockets are meant to stay permanently in space or are steered to a final resting place in a remote stretch of ocean. However, in the case of uncontrolled re-entries such as this one, there’s very little way to predict where the space junk may land.
The good news is that even significant bits of debris like a rocket stage tend to be mostly incinerated by the extreme heat and friction that comes from re-entry. To date there are no known incidents of death or serious injury resulting from such an incident.
So far, there have been no reports of serious damage or injury from this case in India either.