It said most of the debris had burned up on re-entry. It was not immediately clear whether any of what remained had landed on any of the Maldives’s 1,192 islands.
The possibility, however slight, that debris from the rocket could strike a populated area had led people around the world to track its trajectory for days. The administrator of NASA, Bill Nelson, issued an unusual rebuke after China’s announcement, accusing the country of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
The rocket, a Long March 5B, launched the main module of China’s next space station, Tiangong, on April 29. Usually, the large booster stages of rockets immediately drop back to Earth after they are jettisoned, but the 23-ton core stage of the Long March 5B accompanied the space station segment all the way to orbit.
Because of friction caused by the rocket rubbing against air at the top of the atmosphere, it soon began losing altitude, making what is called “uncontrolled re-entry” back to Earth inevitable.
China’s space administration, which had said nothing about uncontrolled re-entry until Sunday, announced that the debris had entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Mediterranean before flying over the Middle East and coming down near the Maldives, south of India. People in Israel and Oman reported sightings of the rocket debris on social media.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who tracks the comings and goings of objects in space, said on Twitter that an ocean splashdown had always been the most likely outcome, but that the episode raised questions about how China designs its space missions.
Long March 5B is China’s largest rocket, and one of the largest currently in use by any nation. The country’s space program needed a large, powerful vehicle to carry Tianhe, the main module of Tiangong, the new space station, which is to be operational by 2022 after more pieces are launched and connected in orbit.
The full rocket contained multiple pieces. Several smaller side boosters dropped off shortly after the launch, crashing harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean. (Disposing of used, unwanted rocket pieces in the ocean is a common practice.) But the core booster stage — a 10-story cylinder weighing 23 tons empty — carried the Tianhe module into orbit.