China's falling Long March 5B rocket stage spotted from space (photos)

A Long March 5B rocket carrying the Mengtian module for China's Tiangong space station launches on Oct. 31, 2022.
A Long March 5B rocket carrying the Mengtian module for China's Tiangong space station launches on Oct. 31, 2022. (Image credit: CCTV)

A large Chinese rocket stage predicted to make an uncontrolled reentry into Earth's atmosphere on Friday (Nov. 4) has been imaged by an orbiting satellite.

Australian company High Earth Orbit Robotics posted images of the Long March 5B first stage on Twitter on Wednesday (Nov. 2), showing the roughly 23-ton (21 metric tons) piece of space junk during its slow descent to Earth.

The images were taken from a distance of 221 miles (355 kilometers), according to HEO Robotics, using an optical imaging satellite belonging to the Argentina-based firm Satellogic.

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HEO Robotics says it can "image anything within the solar system on demand," and its services help "defense, governments and commercial operators visually monitor space objects with our in-orbit flyby inspection technology," according to the company's webpages.

The Long March 5B rocket successfully launched the Mengtian module to China's Tiangong space station on Monday (Oct. 31). The launch also put the large first stage of the rocket into orbit, as has happened on previous Long March 5B missions as well. 

A visualization of the possible tracks the falling Long March 5B rocket body could take. Possible reentry locations lie anywhere along the blue and yellow ground tracks. Areas not under the lines are not exposed to the debris. (Image credit: The Aerospace Corporation)

This tends not to happen with other orbital rockets, whose first stages are designed to ditch into the ocean or over unpopulated land shortly after launch or, in the case of SpaceX vehicles, come down for vertical landings and future reuse.

The spent Long March 5B first stage is expected to make an uncontrolled reentry sometime on Friday (Nov. 4), according to the latest prediction from The Aerospace Corporation.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.