Photos show suspected Chinese rocket debris that landed in an Indian village

Debris from what could have been an abandoned Chinese rocket in Earth orbit appears to have landed in a remote region of India, experts believe.

A large metal ring weighing more than 40 kg (88 lb) reportedly hit the ground in the village of Ladbori on April 2, according to the India timelanding a few feet from a house and startling locals who were preparing food at the time.

Another object, a spherical metal ball weighing about 10 kg (22 lb), reportedly struck a dry pond near the village of Pavanpar. Photos can be seen below, courtesy of journalist Praveen Mudholkar and environmental manager Suresh Chopane.

The fallen objects were found on the same day that several eyewitnesses in India’s Maharashtra region reported seeing blazing lights crossing the sky on April 2, and several videos were uploaded to Twitter.

All of the videos show multiple points of light moving slowly across the night sky, each point leaving behind a tail of fire. A clip can be seen here.

Jonathan McDowell is an astronomer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Answering a question about what the flaming objects might have been, he tweeted“I believe this is the re-entry of a Chinese rocket stage, the third stage of the Chang Zheng 3B serial number Y77 which was launched in February 2021 – it was due to re-enter in the next hour or so and the track is a good match.”

Additionally, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) released a statement that appeared to match McDowell’s conclusion. ISRO told the India time that the same rocket was to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on the same day.

“With the latest orbital information from USSPACECOM, the closest match to observed reentry over India must be from [the] Chinese CZ-3B, which was launched on February 4 last year,” a senior ISRO official told the newspaper.

The Chang Zheng 3B rocket is also known as the Long March 3B. This is the third stage segment of the rocket that would have flown over India.

In a tweet, McDowell said this stage of the rocket was left in an elliptical orbit around Earth after its launch in February last year. Over time, small amounts of atmospheric drag caused the rocket’s altitude to decrease until it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

When rockets are left in orbits like this, it’s impossible to predict exactly when — and therefore where — they will return, McDowell added. “We knew it would fall yesterday, but not precisely when, so it could have been anywhere along the orbit. It turned out to be India.”

Possible rocket debris in India
Parts of possible Chinese rocket debris landed in rural India. Objects in space may not always burn up completely in the atmosphere if they de-orbit.
Suresh Chopane/Praveen Mudholkar

Christina A. Kroll