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Explosion and Debris Reported After Secret Chinese Rocket Launch Fails

Something pretty weird happened in Cambodia this week. On May 23, a mysterious explosion was heard somewhere along Cambodia’s border with Laos in Stung Treng province. While I immediately jumped at the story thinking this would be another mystery boom to add to the pile, villagers in several communes along the Cambodian-Lao border reported finding pieces of unidentified metallic debris shortly after the explosion was heard. What could have exploded over Cambodia?

That remains unknown, but Major General Mao Dara, chief of Stung Treng provincial police, says the debris has been sent to experts for identification. “We heard the sound of an explosion and we saw pieces of iron debris scattered in different places,” Maj Gen Dara said. “We don’t know where the debris came from because we are not experts, so we can’t make a conclusion yet.”

Stung Treng, Cambodia.

Stung Treng, Cambodia.

Pictures published by the Phnom Penh Post show various pieces of metal housing, circuit boards, and metal canisters. From the look of the debris alone, it’s impossible to make out what it could have been from – at least to my layman eyes. One villager who heard and saw the explosion says rumors have been circulating that the debris may have come from a Chinese space launch gone awry, though. “I heard villagers saying there was an announcement in Laos [on Thursday] that a spacecraft was launching in China,” said Prak Savorn. “This might be part of the debris from a Chinese spacecraft that fell on five southern provinces in Laos. That was what I overhead Lao people saying.”

A Chinese Long March 3 rocket.

A Chinese Long March 3 rocket.

There may be some truth to that. Chinese state media confirmed that a Long March 4C rocket failed to get what is believed to be a secret electromagnetic military satellite into orbit Wednesday after a launch near Beijing ended in what Xinhua News called “abnormal operation.” Footage posted to Chinese social media sites shortly after launch show the rocket’s smoke trail spiraling off into several directions at once as the rocket explodes.

According to Xinhua, “rocket and satellite debris have fallen on the ground” following the failed rocket launch, but exactly where that debris fell wasn’t disclosed. This isn’t the first time other countries have had to deal with China’s falling space debris. Is that what villagers found in Cambodia? If so, there are going to be plenty of people who want to get their hands on that debris before the Chinese do.