Chinese rocket debris spurs limit space waste

TOKYO – Few believe their backyards will ever be at zero point for garbage falling from space, even after parts of one of the world’s largest rockets were dropped near the Maldives this month – ci and another which dotted the Ivory Coast last year.

Still, experts warn you might not always be so lucky. Debris from the Chinese Long March 5B rocket fell into the Indian Ocean on May 9, but it could have been anywhere in an area between 41.5 degrees north and south of the equator, reckons held the orbit of the rocket, which was launched on April 29 to help. develop China’s first permanent space station.

China has launched the most rockets in the past three years. In 2020, it made 39 orbital launches compared to 36 for the United States and 16 for Russia, according to Gunter’s space page. The combined launches of all countries have many people involved.

“There should be more calls internationally for some sort of response to the uncontrolled re-entry of rockets into Earth’s atmosphere,” said Nobu Okada, CEO of Astroscale, a Tokyo-based space startup.

Astroscale specializes in removing space debris orbiting the Earth as concerns grow about debris damaging satellites and astronauts. The matter really came to light after China caused an international uproar in 2007 by destroying one of its own satellites with a missile, adding more deadly fragments to those already circling the Earth and increasing the rate by 17%. total debris.

The re-entry of a Long March 5B brought the country back to life, but now on the question of the safe disposal of large rocket stages.

For some, the latest incident underscored the need for a long overdue update on international rules governing space. The 1972 Space Liability Convention, which holds launch countries responsible for damage and to which China is a signatory, must be revamped to reflect today’s realities. The promise of compensation to injured parties is no longer enough: countries are now expected to minimize accidents in the first place.

The risk of rocket debris actually landing on a populated area is very low, experts say. But as the number of launches increases, the risk will increase, they warn.

“As the number of orbital launches is expected to increase, we hope more countries take appropriate action,” such as requiring launch operators to take action to minimize accidents, as the United States has already done. , Europe and Japan, Okada said.

Politics, however, could be an obstacle.

China and the United States are in a fierce space race. On Saturday, China became the third country to land on Mars after the United States and Russia.

China is also building its own permanent space station using a powerful fleet of rockets. The United States, however, does not have an alternate plan for Earth orbit following the planned withdrawal from the International Space Station in 2024. Therefore, China may view the American criticism of rocket debris as obstructionist rather than as a constructive security suggestion, says Hiroaki Akiyama, a professor at the University of Wakayama who previously worked on Japanese space projects.

NASA said on May 9: “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding its space debris.” Beijing responded the next day, with a Foreign Department spokesman saying the United States was “making noise” about the issue. “When it comes to China, the melody is completely different,” the person said.

China is in the process of developing a space station, pictured above, while the United States faces uncertainty with its near space plans following the withdrawal of the International Space Station. © Reuters

Long March 5B is able to reach orbit using a single stage – an unusual feat in the space industry. The simple one-step design has the advantage of being less expensive than its multi-story counterparts, but it is difficult to eliminate due to its size, Akiyama said.

Akiyama believes that it shouldn’t be too difficult for China to drop the rocket into a predefined uninhabited area after use. “It would not take a major change to the system,” he said. The rocket only needs to change direction with its main motor or thrusters after releasing the payload, he said.

Akiyama believes China could make the changes before the next launch, likely to deliver more space station modules later this year. But the chances of the United States and China speaking calmly are remote, given their mutual acrimony, he said. Third parties such as the EU, Russia, Japan or ASEAN might be in a better position to offer advice, he said.

Another way to rally China is through the United Nations, notably through its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), with which China works closely. COPUOS adopted voluntary guidelines on debris and other sustainability issues in 2019.

The guidelines call on member countries to use “design techniques to minimize the risk associated with fragments of space objects surviving an uncontrolled reentry”. The committee should hold meetings to flesh out the guidelines. The committee’s recommendations could serve as a “moderate warning” to China, an expert said.

The business community in the United States and Europe should also lead the development of standards for the industry, to which the Japanese business community could contribute.

Okada d’Astroscale agrees. “Many private companies are actively involved in the development of best practices for safe and sustainable space activities,” he said. “I hope the latest incident will inspire countries to act under UN guidelines.”


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