SEOUL, South Korea — Indian authorities are investigating several pieces of suspected space debris that fell in rural western India on May 12.
Local media reported that the objects in Gujarat crashed with “loud bangs that shook the ground”. There were no casualties or property damage, according to The Indian Express† The crashed objects were all discovered within a 15-mile radius, and among them was a black metal ball weighing about five kilograms, the paper said.
Neither the local authorities nor the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had positively identified the objects.
However, space scientist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says the debris is likely part of the third stage of a Chinese Long March 3B rocket that entered the atmosphere on May 12. The missile was launched in September with China’s ZX-9B communications satellite. “We know that the CZ-3B Y86 re-entered that morning,” McDowell said Space news via email May 16, citing the name of the Chinese rocket’s Spacetrack catalog. “We’re not sure where, but the projected trail is crossing Gujarat at about the right time, so it’s a good candidate, and there were no other large objects re-entering that morning.” Therefore, I conclude that the identification of this debris with CZ-3B Y86 is very strong (high confidence, although not 100% conclusive).”
The final orbit parameters of the CZ-3C Y86 are a bit uncertain due to its highly elliptical orbit with a very low (about 100 km) perigee that changes rapidly due to drag. But seems to be a good match for the return over Gujarat at 1115 UTC May 12, from which debris was found on the ground
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 12, 2022
If the suspected debris is confirmed to be parts of a Chinese missile, it would be the second time in less than two months that Chinese launch debris has crashed into Indian territory.
On April 2, India saw several objects, including a large metal ring, fell in another rural western village† ISRO scientists conducting an on-site investigation on April 15 tentatively labeled the objects as parts of a Chinese Long March missile. Based on photos and videos of the objects, McDowell said the crashed objects may be part of the third phase of Long March 3B serial number Y77, which was launched in February 2021. China has been silent about the return incident.
In addition, in recent years there have been several other instances where a Chinese missile made an alarming return.
In May 2021, remains of the roughly 100-foot-long, five-meter-wide core stage of China’s Long March 5B missile fell into the Indian Ocean after days of speculation — and China’s silence — about where the debris would land. NASA criticized China for “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris”.
A year earlierdebris from another Long March 5B fell on at least two villages in Côte d’Ivoire, after an uncontrolled return of the missile’s core phase.
In Nov 2019a spent leg of Long March 3B fell near China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, destroying a house.