Suspected Chinese rocket debris seen falling over village after launch, video shows

Suspected debris from a Chinese rocket was seen plummeting to the ground over a village in southwest China on Saturday, leaving a trail of bright yellow smoke and sending villagers running, according to videos on Chinese social media and sent to CNN by a local witness.

The dramatic footage surfaced online shortly after a Long March 2C carrier rocket blasted off at 3p.m. local time Saturday (3 a.m. Eastern Time) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

The rocket sent into orbit the Space Variable Objects Monitor, a powerful satellite developed by China and France to study the farthest explosion of stars known as gamma-ray bursts.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has vowed to establish the country as a dominant space power, ramping up missions to compete with other major world powers, including the United States.

Saturday’s launch was declared a “complete success” by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), a state-owned contractor that developed the Long March 2C rocket.

CNN has reached out to the CASC and the State Council Information Office, which handles press inquiries for the Chinese government, including its space agency, for comment.

A video posted on Kuaishou, a Chinese short-video site, appeared to show a long, cylindrical shaped piece of debris falling over a rural village and crashed next to a hill, with yellow smoke billowing from one end.

CNN geolocated the video to be filmed from Xianqiao village in Guizhou province, neighboring the launch site province of Sichuan to the southeast. The video was posted on Kuaishou from an IP address in Guizhou.

Other videos circulating on Chinese social media platforms analyzed by CNN showed multiple angles of the falling debris. In one of them, villagers, including children, were seen running away while looking back at the orange trail in the sky, with some covering their ears for the crash.

Some videos had been taken down by Monday afternoon.

Witnesses on social media said they heard a loud explosion after the debris crashed into the ground. An eyewitness told CNN they saw the rocket fall with their “own eyes.” “There was a pungent smell and the sound of an explosion,” they added.

In a now-deleted government notice reposted by a local villager shortly after the launch, authorities said that Xinba Town, near Xianqiao village, was going to carry out a “rocket debris recovery mission” from 2:45 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. local time on Saturday.

Residents were asked to leave their homes and other buildings an hour before the launch and scatter out in more open areas to observe the sky. They were warned to keep away from the debris to prevent harm from “toxic gas and explosion,” according to the notice.

Residents were also “strictly forbidden” to take photos of the debris or “spread relevant videos online,” the notice said.

There were no reports of immediate injuries from local authorities.

A screengrab taken from video shows suspected Chinese rocket debris falling over Xianqiao village, Guizhou Province, China, following a launch. - KuaishouA screengrab taken from video shows suspected Chinese rocket debris falling over Xianqiao village, Guizhou Province, China, following a launch. - Kuaishou

A screengrab taken from video shows suspected Chinese rocket debris falling over Xianqiao village, Guizhou Province, China, following a launch. – Kuaishou

‘Extremely toxic’

Markus Schiller, a rocket expert and associate senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the debris appeared to be the first stage of the Long March 2C rocket, which uses a liquid propellant consisted of nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH).

“This combination always creates these orange smoke trails. It’s extremely toxic and carcinogenic,” Schiller said. “Every living being that inhales that stuff will have a hard time in the near future,” he added.

Such incidents happen frequently in China due to the location of its launch site, he said.

“If you want to launch something to low Earth orbit, you usually launch it in the easternly direction to get some extra boost from the rotation of the Earth. But if you launch to the east, there are definitely always some villages in the pathway of the boosters of the first stage.”

Most rockets in China are blasted from the country’s three inland launch sites – Xichang in the southwest, Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert in the northwest, and Taiyuan in the north. Built during the Cold War, these bases were deliberately located far from the coast out of security concerns.

In 2016, a fourth launch site, Wenchang, opened in Hainan Island, the country’s southernmost province.

In comparison, NASA and the European Space Agency usually launch their rockets from coastal locations toward the ocean, said Schiller, who’s also a director of ST Analytics in Munich, Germany.

Western space agencies have also largely phased out the kind of highly toxic liquid propellants for their civilian space programs, which China – and Russia – still use, he added.

Multi-staged rockets shed debris shortly after blast-off, along trajectories that can be predicted before the launch.

Before each launch, China’s civil aviation authority typically issues a notice to pilots, known as NOTAM, to warn them against the “temporary danger areas” where rocket debris are likely to be falling.

Debris from Chinese rockets have hit villages before. In December 2023, the debris of a rocket landed in southern Hunan Province, damaging two houses, state media reported. In 2002, a boy in northern China was injured when fragments from a satellite launch fell on his village in Shaanxi province.

“I expect that we’ll see something like that for quite a while, for many years to come,” Schiller.

China has previously faced criticism from the international space community for its handling of debris from its out-of-control rocket boosters when they reenter Earth.

In 2021, NASA lambasted China for its failure to “meet responsible standards” after debris from its out-of-control Long March 5B rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean just west of the Maldives after reentering the atmosphere.

CNN’s Joyce Jiang, Edward Szekeres and Steven Jiang contributed reporting.

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