Debris From 18-Ton Chinese Rocket That Crashed to Earth May Have Landed in Africa

Fragments of a large Chinese rocket segment that plummeted to Earth in an uncontrolled descent earlier this week may have fallen on land in the Ivory Coast, local reports suggest.

Initial data indicated that the 18-ton, nearly 100-foot-long, core stage of the Long March 5B rocket, one of the largest pieces of space debris to have ever fallen to Earth in an uncontrolled fashion, had smashed harmlessly into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Mauritania in West Africa on Monday.

However, locals in the village of Mahounou in the Ivory Coast have found what appears to be a long metal pipe that reportedly fell from the sky.

According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks space objects falling to Earth, Mahounou is directly below the projected path of the Long March 5B core stage, and around 1,300 miles down-range from where the rocket piece reentered the atmosphere.

Other pieces of debris were also found in the country below the projected track of the rocket, although McDowell urged caution in concluding that all of them may have come from the spacecraft.

"Reports of a [39-foot-long] object crashing into the village of Mahounou in Cote d'Ivoire. Possible that part of the stage could have sliced through the [atmosphere] that far," McDowell tweeted, using the French name for the country.

"I conclude that the objects seen in Mahounou, and at least some of the other objects from the Cote d'Ivore region whose photos are being circulated in African media, are very likely parts of the Chinese rocket stage," he said. "I continue to urge caution on some of the later photos to emerge: experience tells us that locals may find unrelated metal objects on the ground which they believe in good faith to be part of the same fall."

While there is currently no concrete evidence that the metal object found in Mahounou came from the rocket, locals reported hearing loud noises and flashes, and seeing falling debris around the same time that the rocket would have passed overhead, according to local media.

"When you have a big chunk of metal screaming through the upper atmosphere in a particular direction at a particular time, and you get reports of things falling out of the sky at that location, at that time, it's not a big leap to connect them," McDowell told The Verge.

So far there have been no reports of any injuries, although local media reported that a large metal tube had caused damaged to a house in N'guinou, which again is very near the predicted track, according to McDowell.

It's possible that some of the core stage could have fallen into the Atlantic, while other parts carried on further, crashing into West Africa.

Long March 5B rocket
A Long March 5B rocket lifts off from the the Wenchang launch site on China's southern Hainan island on May 5, 2020. STR/AFP via Getty Images

"For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive reentry and crash to Earth," McDowell told CNN. "Once they reach the lower atmosphere they are traveling relatively slowly, so worst case is they could take out a house."

The Long March 5B rocket in question was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center carrying an unmanned prototype spacecraft. After the successful launch, the core stage remained in a low-Earth orbit for around a week before making its planned, albeit uncontrolled, descent.

The United States Air Force's 18th Space Control Squadron confirmed the reentry of the rocket—which passed directly over Los Angeles and New York City during its descent—at 11:33 a.m. ET.

"I've never seen a major reentry pass directly over so many major conurbations!" McDowell tweeted following the event.

The core stage is the largest piece of space debris to make an uncontrolled descent back to Earth since 1991 when the 39-tonne Soviet space station Salyut-7 reentered the atmosphere. That is if you don't count the descent of the space shuttle Columbia in February, 2003, which became uncontrolled during its reentry after disintegrating.