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Large space debris from Chinese rocket falls back to Earth

The rocket’s empty core stage, weighing nearly 18 tons, is the largest piece of space debris to fall uncontrolled back to Earth since 1991.

A Chinese rocket that became one of the largest pieces of space debris plummeted toward Earth and landed in the Atlantic Ocean on May 11. 

The crashed rocket was the core of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched on May 5. The heavy-lift rocket, which was carrying China’s prototype crew capsule, successfully launched from Wenchang launch centre on Hainan Island off the country’s southern coast.

The mission marked the first time China had launched this particular rocket variant to space. China hopes to use the new rocket to assemble a modular space station in orbit of Earth, so it weighed down the test capsule with extra fuel to simulate 20-ton station segments. 

The spacecraft returned to Earth safely last week, but the core stage rocket remained in space until yesterday when it plummeted uncontrolled to Earth. 

If the Long March 5B core stage had reentered Earth’s atmosphere just 15 minutes earlier, chunks of it very likely could have fallen across New York City, Ars Technica reported.

NASA currently estimates that there are some 21,000 pieces of space junk larger than a softball orbiting the Earth that can damage a satellite or spacecraft.