Now that it’s become apparent that the object seen streaking over the Marianas Friday night was rocket debris from China’s launch, it’s still unclear how close Guam and Northern Marianas residents were to a disaster.
The National Weather Service provided radar image of the rocket debris falling from the sky. The object was noticed at a height of about 70,000 feet and is presumed to have hit the sea just northeast of Saipan.
But what if the remnants of China’s Long March 5 rocket launch hit land instead of water?
The Weather Service was asked that question by one of its Facebook followers who was commenting on the radar image showing the object wasn’t too far from hitting land in the Marianas.
NWS’ answer, in part, was this: “Since the rocket was launched by China and nobody can control a meteor which are the only two real possibilities – both are harmless unless they hit you directly and the odds against that are huge.”
But there have been times debris from other Long March rocket launches has hit buildings and people in China.
The Atlantic in 2018 reported several such incidents:
• One in 2015, when part of a booster of a Long March rocket struck a house in Shanxi, China, cutting a sizable hole into the roof.
• In 1996, another Long March rocket carrying a U.S.-manufactured satellite crashed into a hillside, and China’s state-run news agency reported the accident killed six people and injured 57, but some suspect the toll was much higher.
• And in January 2018, when a rocket blasted off in China’s Sichuan province, its boosters – which provide extra lift in the minutes after launch – fell back to Earth as expected, but one of the three boosters landed in a populated area, erupting into a fireball on the ground near a building.
Chinese media reported the most recent Long March rocket launch was a prelude to its goal of sending a rocket to the moon this year.
The 187-foot-tall rocket, which is dubbed the most powerful in China’s fleet by Chinese media, lifted off from southern China at 8:45 p.m. Beijing time – 10:45 p.m. Guam time – on Dec. 27.
Guam residents began sharing video images captured on phone cameras around 11 p.m. that night.
Spaceflight Now’s website reported the four boosters that propelled the Long March 5 rocket were jettisoned to fall into the South China Sea some three minutes into the mission. Instead, at least one of the boosters went well outside of the South China Sea and into waters near the Marianas, although the exact location hasn’t been publicly shared.
FAA notice to airmen
Just a few days before the rocket launch, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a notice to pilots to stay away from an area where rocket debris might fall.
The Dec. 24 notice told pilots that “the China National Space Administration had planned a rocket launch and that pilots should avoid the area in which debris was expected to fall,” said Ian Gregor, communications manager of the FAA Pacific Division.
As to what happened to the rocket debris and how far from Saipan or Guam it landed, FAA had no answer.
“The FAA does not look for, or examine, debris from foreign governments’ rocket launches,” Gregor stated in an emailed response to The Guam Daily Post.
But while the FAA had a duty to notify pilots of falling rocket debris, it’s not clear whose job it was to notify Guam and Northern Marianas residents once it was known the rocket booster had rocketed past the South China Sea.
No military threat
The military didn’t have answers for the public on the rocket, either, saying only that no military threat arose from the incident.
“We can definitively say there was no military threat to Guam or the (Northern Marianas) related to this event. During the event Joint Region Marianas was in constant communication with Guam Homeland Security and Office of Civil Defense,” the military’s Joint Region Marianas stated.
“Please contact the National Weather Service and/or the Federal Aviation Administration regarding meteors and satellite debris,” the military added in response.
Guam’s Office of Civil Defense and Homeland Security Offices issued a statement Tuesday, asserting it “worked to provide timely information to the public with the information at hand.”
‘Gaps in communication’
The government of Guam press release was titled: “Chinese Commercial Launch Prompts Affirmative Action.”
It was around 11:25 p.m. Friday when the Guam Homeland Security and Civil Defense offices received multiple reports and inquiries of recordings of what appeared to be a streaking fireball falling from the sky, the agencies stated.
Not a threat to the Marianas
“This incident was not a threat to the Marianas,” stated Tim Aguon, Guam Homeland Security advisor.
He added: “Following the Chinese launch event, I have met with Joint Region Marianas and am working closely with the FAA on a way forward for incidents like these.”
In the same press release, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero also said there were communication gaps, but not on the part of the local government.
“From the event, we found the gaps in communication between federal authorities and their counterparts,” the governor said in the press release.
“I have instructed the Homeland Security advisor to help close those gaps in the future. The safety of the community is our priority here, and part of that is making sure all are informed so when incidents do happen, they can prepare and react accordingly.”