China’s 23-ton crashing rocket debris – which could have been deorbited with care – is another example of Communist China’s indifference to global norms. It landed in the Indian Ocean – but could have crashed anywhere. Just as China disclaims responsibility for COVID and treaties on Hong Kong, human rights, intellectual property, trade, cybercrime, and militarization of space and oceans, they ignore basic norms of civilized countries and safety in space.
That massive chunk of Chinese space debris was a “throwaway” stage from a Chinese “Long March 5B” rocket China used to put their “Tianhe” space station in orbit. Until entering the atmosphere, it was orbiting every 90 minutes at 18,000 miles an hour – ready to drop.
De-orbiting debris safely and with precision is possible for China as the rest of the world – but China apparently erred or did not care. Rocket debris and spent satellites can be directed away from population centers and into the ocean with controlled launch trajectories, proper altitude control, deorbiting procedures – to mitigate risk. See, e.g., https://www.nasa.gov/smallsat-institute/sst-soa-2020/passive-deorbit-systems; http://asl.stanford.edu/wp-content/papercite-data/pdf/Bylard.MacPherson.Hockman.ea.AeroConf17.pdf.
This looks more like recklessness or negligence than intent, but why again? China has done this before. As one deferential commentator noted before the debris fell: “This is the largest item to make an unscheduled re-entry into the atmosphere in many years …The Chinese space agency has made a rather embarrassing blunder, and should anything bad happen, consequences will have to be dealt with.” See https://www.eadt.co.uk/news/chinese-rocket-stage-falling-to-earth-7956592.
So, Chinese leaders effectively endangered every country and city in the world. In the final days, New York was on the “could hit” list, as New York and California were vulnerable to a prior tumbling Chinese rocket. See, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/really-unpredictable-chinese-rocket-hurtling-back-to-earth-possible-debris-zone-spans-huge-swath-of-globe/ar-BB1gvnpG?ocid=uxbndlbing.
In the final hours, a raft of countries and cities braced for damaging debris – deadly in densely populated areas. Places watching hard were Costa Rica, Haiti, Iberia, Sardinia, Italy, Greece and Crete, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and New Zealand. See https://www.cbsnews.com/news/chinese-rocket-falling-debris-long-march-5b/.
Fortunately, no damage occurred when the massive Chinese rocket hunk reentered the atmosphere without direction, the ability for correction, or advance planning to avoid the contingency. But what happens the next time, and the next, and next? China will continue to put pieces and people in space on that space station.
One could say we need another treaty – and perhaps we do—the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 aimed at limiting space to peaceful purposes. China has pushed that treaty’s limits, reportedly testing anti-satellite satellites in orbit. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/31/russia-china-space-war-treaty-demilitarization-satellites/. They are reportedly building space weapons right now. https://www.newsweek.com/china-building-destructive-space-weapons-blind-us-satellites-intelligence-report-reveals-1583672.
Ironically, China proposed in 2021 – with Russia – a treaty banning space weapons. They desperately want the United States to sign. Some think that is a trick. US policymakers are circumspect and should be. https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/04/28/the-russia-china-space-weaponization-treaty/. While no one wants weapons in space – or a new arms race – the question is whether any treaty will hold China. Would China adhere, having dishonored so many treaties?
Bottom line: China could have used care and prevented this multi-ton rocket debris from randomly crashing – putting the world on edge. They are notorious treaty violators. So, yes, we should have legal agreements to prevent both space weapons and randomly crashing rockets. But the question is: Can we ever trust China? This incident puts an exclamation point behind the question mark. The day is coming when China must be held accountable for indifference. Their offenses are multiplying.
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