China’s disregard for safety in its space development cannot be allowed

China has rapidly been promoting its space development and is now almost on a par with the United States and Russia in this area. However, China cannot be allowed to hastily advance into space while leaving behind the responsibilities associated with its space development.

China’s large rocket, the Long March 5B, entered the atmosphere uncontrollably, with debris falling into the Indian Ocean. If debris had fallen into a densely populated area, lives could have been at risk.

In the case of a general rocket, the first stage is designed to fall into an expected sea area after the engine fires. The second stage falls after entering the Earth’s orbit, and in many cases, it is small enough to burn up in the atmosphere.

China’s rocket in question has a different structure, and the core part of the rocket entered orbit around the Earth. After that, it began to fall, but it did not burn up entirely in the process because of its large size. Concerns were raised because it was unclear when and where debris would fall.

It is difficult to predict where a rocket will fall without knowing the timing of its entry into the atmosphere and the condition of the aircraft. It is essential for China to fully disclose information on the trajectories and airframes of its rockets.

China uses such a launch method that is apparently aimed at decreasing the number of times rockets are detached, thus reducing the possibility of failure and lowering costs.

China came under international criticism in 2007 when it tested a missile to destroy an artificial satellite and dumped huge amounts of debris into space. Last year, it was also reported that China’s rocket debris fell onto houses in Cote d’Ivoire in Africa.

China’s stance of neglecting safety runs counter to international common sense and should be revised.

This time, China launched part of a space station facility that it is building independently. It is expected to be completed by around 2022 to compete with the International Space Station operated mainly by Japan, the United States, Europe and Russia.

Therefore, China is expected to repeat rocket launches at a rapid pace, prompting fears that debris could fall again.

In recent years, China has been striving to become a “great power in space.” It has made remarkable progress in its technology, including successful uncrewed moon landings. However, it must be said that China’s pursuit of space hegemony at the cost of undermining its credibility in the international community is problematic.

Private companies around the world have also embarked on space development and plan to launch a number of artificial satellites.

The current international treaty, which stipulates responsibility for compensation in the event of rocket debris falling into another country, is insufficient and ineffective. It is an urgent task to draw up international rules, and China must play a part in this task.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 11, 2021.