China’s activities in space have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. A few days ago, debris from a Chinese rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and splashed into the Indian Ocean. The Long March 5-B rocket was launched on April 29 and was carrying the first module of China’s new space station, Tianhe, from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Hainan province. According to the estimates
provided by the China Manned Space Agency, the remains of the rocket fell west of the Maldives archipelago. Responding to speculations about where it might land, Chinese officials reiterated that there was no risk to populated areas from any debris. Others have not been so sanguine. NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson released a statement saying
, “Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” While the rocket did crash in the Indian Ocean without any damage or destruction to people or property, the key question is: Why is China’s space programme allowing this to happen repeatedly
This is not the first time that China’s space program has been responsible for such events. In 2018, China’s space laboratory, Tiangong-1
, also had an uncontrolled descent into the earth’s atmosphere, after China’s space agency lost control over the spacecraft. It is unclear why China had allowed this to happen. As Ted J Muelhaupt, principal director of Aerospace’s Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies, put it
, “It’s not a trivial thing to design something for a deliberate re-entry, but it’s nevertheless something that the world as a whole has moved to because we needed to.” Designing rocket stages for deliberate re-entry would have allowed for greater control over where the spent rocket stage possibly lands, thus, allowing for greater safety for people and property.
With China planning an ambitious space programme that includes its own space station, it is likely that there will be more such risky incidents in the future as well. It is somewhat disturbing because China’s space programme has advanced to a degree that it undertakes missions including landing on the South Pole-Aitken Basin (on the far side of the Moon
), returning rocks from the moon
, and an interplanetary mission to Mars
, which clearly demonstrates China has the technical capability to design and launch rockets whose spent stages can land without putting others at risk. That it has not done so is odd. It is not exactly what can be characterised as responsible behaviour in space.
Another example of China breaking norms and engaging in irresponsible behaviour in space is its ASAT test. China’s first successful anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007, at an altitude of 850 kilometres, resulted in creating around 3,000 pieces of space debris. More significantly, it broke the unwritten moratorium that was in place for two decades. Beijing also started developing various counterspace capabilities with the goal of competing with the US. Nevertheless, each of China’s actions have led to a spiral effect, with others seeking to match China’s actions, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, given the contested nature of Asian and global geopolitics. For example, China’s repeated ASAT tests have led to the US’ own ASAT test (Operation Burnt Frost in 2008), and India’s ASAT test (Mission Shakti in 2019). India had no plans to go down this path until China’s first ASAT test, which became a gamechanging moment for India. Even so, India did not react to it for more than a decade, but the final decision was a carefully calibrated and a direct response to China’s growing military space capabilities and its less-than responsible behaviour. Other countries
like Japan and France are also contemplating moves in this direction. Australia
may not be far behind either.
Even though it may not be linked to the uncontrolled re-entry of the Chinese rocket, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University noted
that “about six minutes after Tianhe and the CZ-5B separated, they both came close to the ISS—under 300 km, which given uncertainties in trajectory is a tad alarming.” Making this point, he added
“it’s *possible* that this ISS/Tianhe close encounter was one of those unlikely coincidences. I’m open to that possibility, but they should still have spotted the closeness and warned NASA (or better, called a collision avoidance hold in the count).”
Rocket re-entries are not uncommon, but space powers have tried to avoid the freefalls by usually conducting controlled re-entries so that they may fall in the ocean, or they may be directed towards the so-called “graveyard” orbits that may lie there for decades. But Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Astrophysics Center at Harvard University argues that the Chinese rocket was designed in a manner that “leaves these big stages in low orbit.” And even in the case of controlled re-entries, there are failures sometimes and they can be dangerous too. SpaceX’s
rocket debris landing on a farm in Washington in March this year is a case in point.
Moriba Jah, an Associate Professor at The University of Texas at Austin argues
in a media interview that such events are going to become more common, and will happen more frequently and, therefore, humanity should come together
to “jointly manage near earth space as a commons in need of coordination, protocols, and practices to maximise safety, security, and sustainability.” On the NASA Administrator’s statement, Jah said this should not be “singling out China.” Certainly, this is not about apportioning blame, but China’s actions cannot be condoned either.
What can be done? Given that usable orbits in space are finite in nature, there will need to be steps taken by all the space players to ensure that their actions do not contribute to further pollution of space and make it unusable in the near term. States have to invest in technologies that would aid in cleaning up and getting rid of some of the debris. States also need to come together in developing norms, rules of the road, and legally binding and political instruments on large rocket body re-entries.
The Long March 5B episode has yet again rekindled the debate on the need for rules for rocket and large body re-entries. Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, for instance, questioned
why, despite all ranting about China’s rocket re-entry issues, the US State Department has “consistently oppose anything stronger than voluntary guidelines.” Weeden has provided a useful Twitter thread on the US hesitancy to get on board with legal agreements on outer space. One problem is that while the US abides by international obligations, other do not. This is a concern that Weeden notes “has a grain of truth” but adds the caveat that “reality is not that definitive”.
While he is correct to note that the issue is complicated, it is also true that countries like China have a terrible track record when it comes to meeting their treaty commitments. China’s violation of its own commitments with respect to nuclear non-proliferation, or in the South China Sea and East China Sea are well-known. Given this history, it is difficult to believe that China will allow itself to be bound by any restraints on its space programme, even if it signs any of these agreements. But given the US’ almost allergic reaction to signing legal agreements that others like China may violate, it doesn’t hurt China to keep bringing up PPWT-like (Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects) measures every now and then. This puts the whole international community in a bind. If we have to ensure safe and uninterrupted access to space, creating a secure, sustainable, and predictable outer space framework is essential. But unless all states demonstrate a commitment to living up to existing rules and norms, creating new ones will be difficult.
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