China’s Rocket Reenters Near Borneo and the Philippines

China’s Rocket Reenters Near Borneo and the Philippines

China’s Long March-5B rocket made an uncontrolled reentry this afternoon EDT over the Indian Ocean near Borneo and the Philippines. Videos posted to Twitter by residents in the area are widely accepted, though not confirmed, as showing it breaking apart as it plummets through the atmosphere. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized China for not sharing trajectory data during the reentry.

Launched on July 24, the rocket delivered the Wentian space station module to orbit. Unlike most rockets, the Long March-5B is basically one stage that goes into orbit along with its payload. The roughly 30 meter long, 5 meter diameter stage, with a mass of about 22 Metric Tons, does not have any onboard systems to control when or where it reenters. Although much of it burns up during the firery descent to Earth, pieces of objects that large typically survive.

Launch of the Wentian space station module on a Long March 5B rocket, July 25, 2022. Photo credit: Xinhua

This is the third Long March-5B ever launched. The first was a test and spread debris over the African nation Ivory Coast in 2020. The second launched China’s Tianhe space station module in 2021 and landed in the Indian Ocean.

This one streaked across the Indian Ocean and over the island of Borneo where it apparently was observed by Nazri Sulaiman, who at first thought it was a meteor, and others.

U.S. Space Command tracked the reentry all along and posted updated predictions of when and where it would come down with ever-narrowing error bars for the past several days. It confirmed the reentry at 10:45 am Mountain Time (12:45 pm Eastern), but not the coordinates.

Borneo is at 114.6° east longitude and 0.96° north latitude. China’s Xinhua news agency reported that the “vast majority of the device fell into the sea, with the center of the landing area at a longiture of 119 degrees east and latitude of 9.1 degrees north.” That’s a little further northeast along the ground track towards the Philippines. It cited a reentry time of 12:55 am Beijing Time on July 31 (16:55 UTC July 30), about 10 minutes later than U.S. Space Command’s (16:45 UTC July 30), so it would have traveled a bit further in those minutes.

Map of Southeast Asia including Borneo and the Philippines. Credit:

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement chastising China for not sharing trajectory data during the reeentry.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth.

“All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property. Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.”  — Bill Nelson

He was similarly critical last year with the Tianhe LM-5B reentry as was his predecessor, Jim Bridenstine, when the first LM-5B reentered.

The LM-5B, China’s most powerful rocket, will be used again in October to launch Mengtian, the third and final module for China’s Tiangong-3 space station. The rocket is expected to continue in use thereafter, but there is no indication China plans to retrofit it with a deorbit capability, so these uncontrolled reentries appear likely to continue.


Note: this article has been updated

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