Parts of China’s gigantic Long March 5B rocket finally made their uncontrolled descent back to Earth on Monday, CNN reports. Pieces of debris soared over the continental United States before splashing into the Atlantic Monday afternoon, as confirmed by the US Air Force.
“For a large object like this, dense pieces like parts of the rocket engines could survive reentry and crash to Earth,” Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan 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 rocket had originally sent an experimental spacecraft into Earth’s orbit earlier this month — but the empty core of the rocket started hurtling back through the Earth’s atmosphere as it made its way down, without any technology to alter its course.
When it hit the water, it was likely quite the belly flop.
“At 17.8 tons, it is the most massive object to make an uncontrolled reentry since the 39-tonne Salyut-7 [spacecraft] in 1991,” McDowell wrote in a tweet last week.
Only larger pieces of the Skylab in 1979 and the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 made more massive uncontrolled descents back down to Earth.
Pieces of debris careening through Earth’s atmosphere are difficult to track. As of Monday morning, “potential reentry areas” still included parts of Australia, US, and Africa according to McDowell.
“The Air Force’s final prediction was plus or minus half an hour, during which time it went 3/4 of the way around the world. It’s pretty hard to do any better,” McDowell told CNN.
Update: As it fell, the rocket reportedly dropped pieces over parts of Africa.
More on the rocket: A Massive Chinese Rocket Is Plummeting Out of the Sky Right Now