SEOUL, South Korea — Indian authorities are examining several pieces of suspected space debris that fell into rural western India on May 12, with the timing of the incident suggesting they could be parts of a Chinese rocket that reentered the atmosphere that day. 

Local media reported that the objects crashed with “loud thuds that shook the ground” in Gujarat. There were no casualties or property damage, according to The Indian Express. The crashed objects were all discovered within a 15-kilometer radius, and among them was a black metal ball weighing around five kilograms, the newspaper said.

Neither local authorities nor the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had positively identified the objects.

However, space watcher Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says the debris is probably part of the third stage of a Chinese Long March 3B rocket that reentered the atmosphere May 12. The rocket launched in September carrying China’s ZX-9B communications satellite. “We know that  CZ-3B Y86 reentered that morning,” McDowell told SpaceNews via email May 16, referring to the Chinese rocket’s Spacetrack catalog name. “We don’t know for sure where, but its projected track does cross Gujarat at about the right time, so it’s a good candidate, and there were no other large objects that reentered that morning. Therefore, I conclude that the identification of this debris with CZ-3B Y86 is very strong (high confidence, although not 100% conclusive).”

CZ-3C Y86’s final orbital parameters are a bit uncertain due to its highly elliptical orbit with very low (100 km or so) perigee rapidly changing due to drag. But appears a fair match for the reentry over Gujarat at 1115 UTC May 12 from which debris has been found on the ground

— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 12, 2022

If the suspected debris is confirmed to be parts of a Chinese rocket, it would be the second time in less than two months that Chinese launch debris crashed on Indian territory.

More of the suspected space debris that fell into rural western India on May 12.  Credit: YouTube video still
More of the suspected space debris that fell into rural western India on May 12.  Credit: YouTube video still

On April 2, India saw several objects, including a large metal ring, fell into another rural western village. ISRO scientists who conducted an onsite investigation April 15 tentatively labeled the objects as parts of a Chinese Long March rocket. Based on photos and videos of the objects, McDowell said the crashed objects could be parts of the third stage of Long March 3B serial number Y77, which was launched in February 2021. China has remained silent on the reentry incident.

On top of this, there were several other cases in recent years in which a Chinese rocket made a troubling re-entry.

In May 2021, remnants from the roughly 30-meter-long, five-meter-wide core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket 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.”

One year earlier, debris from another Long March 5B fell onto at least two villages in the Ivory Coast, following an uncontrolled re-entry of the rocket’s core stage.

In November 2019, a spent stage of Long March 3B fell near the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China, destroying a house.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...