China State Media Says Out-of-Control Rocket Debris 'Likely' to Fall in Water

A Chinese newspaper aligned with the country's government published a story on Wednesday that downplays the Pentagon's monitoring of potentially dangerous space debris from a Chinese rocket as "nothing but Western hype."

The Global Times, an English- and Chinese-language publication that functions as a de facto mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, said that reports of the debris being "out of control" or that it "may cause damage if it hits inhabited areas" are untrue. Instead, the paper contended, Chinese space analysts predict that any remains of the rocket are "very likely to fall in international waters and people needn't worry."

The story comes on the heels of reports that the Pentagon was tracking a free-falling Chinese rocket that could strike Earth by Saturday. There was also indications of some concern coming from the United States Department of Defense about where the debris may make impact.

The debris would come from a 100-foot section of China's Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket, which sent the first section of China's space station into orbit after launching from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in south China's Hainan Province on April 29.

The Global Times wrote that observers said such warnings were only due to the U.S. feeling threatened by China's advancement in space technology. The paper quoted aerospace expert and TV commentator Song Zhongping, who said it is "completely normal" for rocket debris to return to Earth.

"In all, it is another hyping of the so-called 'China space threat' adopted by some Western forces," Song said. "It's an old trick used by hostile powers every time they see technological breakthroughs in China, as they are nervous."

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University, told CNN on Tuesday night that people should not consider the reports "the end of days."

"I don't think people should take precautions. The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small—not negligible, it could happen—but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny," McDowell said. "And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal threat basis."

Wang Ya'nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, was also quoted by The Global Times and said: "Most of the debris will burn up during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, leaving only a very small portion that may fall to the ground, which will potentially land on areas away from human activities or in the ocean."

Song was also quoted as having claimed the Long March-5B Y2 rocket used special fuel, which would not cause water pollution if the debris falls into the ocean. He also reportedly said China's space monitoring network will monitor areas under the rocket's flight course and take necessary measures should any ships sailing beneath it appear in danger of being struck by debris.

China Space Station rocket launch
A Long March 5B rocket, carrying China's Tianhe space station core module, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China's Hainan province on April 29, 2021. STR/AFP/Getty Images