You may have heard about a recent re-entering rocket—or part of one, anyway. The 39,200 lbs Long March 5B core fell, uncontrollably, into the ocean on May 9, 2021, nine days after its launch from China. And it’s not the first spacecraft or component to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. So how much space junk is orbiting Earth? There are several thousand pieces that are large enough to be tracked. Of these, 26 have returned from space to a launchpad—or hit the water.
With names like Apollo, Cosmos, Pegasus, and even another Long March, it’s clear these objects are out of this world. And yet…they found their way back to Earth. We highlight the largest of these re-entering spacecraft or components, along with the controlled and uncontrolled entries—plus, the countries that launched them on the map below.
View Spacecraft and Satellite Reentry in a full screen map
We used Wikipedia’s table of the heaviest re-entering debris list and paired the data with each object’s splash coordinates. Click through the interactive map to view the space debris field—or where these 26 objects fell. Then, sort by reentry type, reentry timeline, owner, launch information, and more or read on as we launch into the most massive of these spatial objects.
First things first, let’s go over the size of these falling objects. The 26 spacecraft or their components range in size from 5,300 lbs (a little larger than a rhino) to 260,000 lbs, which is nearly the size of the Statue of Liberty. As for the largest of these already large returning spatial objects? They’re all over 40,000 lbs, as you’ll note on the table below.
|Object||Mass (lb)||Mass (kg)||Reentry type||Owner||Reentry year|
|S-II Stage / Skylab||79,700||36,200||Uncontrolled||USA||1975|
|STS external tank (Standard Tank)||77,000||35,000||Partially Controlled||USA||1981|
|STS external tank (Lightweight Tank)||66,000||30,000||Partially Controlled||USA||1983|
The most massive re-entering spacecraft was Russia’s Mir. More than half again as big as the second-largest, the space station’s deorbit was meticulously planned in three stages before ultimately landing in the ocean near Nadi, Fiji. The space station had spent 15 years in service, though its orbit decay and presence of the International Space Station led to its controlled reentry in 2001.
That second-largest returning object was the U.S.’s Skylab. As it was the first American space station, its Earthly return turned into an international media event in 1979, with T-shirts and hats with bullseyes and “Skylab Repellent” with a money-back guarantee, wagering on the time and place of re-entry, and nightly news reports.
The rest of these massive spacecraft or components all weigh in at 88,000 lbs or less. With an idea of the size of these returning objects, let’s move on to the type of re-entry.
Regardless of mass, another important factor of re-entering spacecraft or components is whether their re-entry is controlled or not. During a controlled re-entry, the object may be navigated or follow a preset course. The opposite is true for an uncontrolled entry. Uncontrolled entries have the (albeit slim) chance of crashing somewhere dangerous. Of the 26 spacecraft or components to have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, some were controlled, while others ended up uncontrolled or partially controlled.
- Uncontrolled (14)
- Controlled (9)
- Partially Controlled (3)
We’ll begin with the good news: nearly 35% of all re-entries have been controlled. The USSR’s Salyut 1 was the first to intentionally crash, in October of 1971. And when it comes to the need for a “Partially Controlled” category, we can thank the U.S. All three that re-entered between 1979 to 1983 belonged to the country.
The first of many uncontrolled reentries took place in 1964. The U.S.’s Apollo SA-7 CSM BP-15 went into the Indian Ocean. Since then, a total of 14 have followed suit, including the recent uncontrolled re-entry of Long March 5B core (5B-Y2 flight) on May 9, 2021. This wasn’t even the first of its name to re-enter uncontrollably. Almost exactly one year earlier, on May 11, 2020, Long March 5B core (5B-Y1 flight) came back to Earth. Both were launched by China, which leads us to which countries owned these massive controlled—or uncontrolled—objects.
While the recent uncontrolled re-entries may make it seem as though China’s space program is always launching something that comes back to the atmosphere, it’s astro-not the country with the most re-entering spacecrafts. Here’s an overview of the countries that launched these heavy objects, only to have them come back to Earth.
- USA (10)
- USSR (9)
- China (3)
- Russia (2)
- NASA (1)
- DLR (1)
As you can see, most of the 26 re-entering spacecrafts or components came from the U.S. Only one of those 10 was controlled: CGRO, which returned to Earth in June 2000 after launching back in April 1991. And as we previously mentioned, the only three partially controlled re-entries came from here as well.: STS external Lightweight Tank, STS external Standard Tank, and Skylab. This makes the other six U.S. re-entries uncontrolled, the names of which you can find on the map.
As for the USSR, seven of the nine total were controlled re-entries, arguably making the socialist state the most responsible when it comes to space object re-entry. The two that were uncontrolled? Salyut 7 and Cosmos 557, both from decades past.
There you have it: the largest space objects to re-enter the Earth, those that were controlled or uncontrolled, and the countries that launched them. Get more insight into your data with custom-made maps. And to continue your exploration of space Earth-side, check out Space Stations with Most Rocket Launches.