International and social media have been awash with dramatic coverage of a huge out-of-control Chinese rocket stage tumbling toward Earth, generating no shortage of criticism or memes as the world waited to see where it would land. Although China appears to have “won its gamble,” as one expert said, the incident has once again put its space ambitions in the news, highlighting not only their scope, but also potential implications for the rest of the world.
About 30m long, the Long March CZ-5B core stage was one of the largest items of space debris to fall to Earth without a controlled descent. Rockets are usually designed to re-enter the atmosphere shortly after liftoff and fall in a predictable manner into the ocean, but the core stage of the Long March 5B was left in orbit for reasons Chinese space officials have been reticent to explain.
Experts spent days calculating where it would land. Although the chances of it landing in a populated area were relatively low, it posed an unnecessary risk that invited criticism.
“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, China’s state-run Global Times downplayed the risk while accusing Western media of applying double standards, calling the process “a global common way to deal with rocket debris.”
The debris ultimately landed in the Indian Ocean on Sunday west of the Maldives after mostly burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. However, while this was one crisis averted, it was not the first time China has adopted a blase attitude toward rocket debris. A year ago, piping from another Chinese rocket damaged some homes in the Ivory Coast, while in 2018, China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, crashed into the Pacific Ocean in another uncontrolled re-entry, and remnants of a launch in 2019 showered debris on rural Sichuan Province.
The Long March 5B was the first of 11 rockets that China plans to send up within the next two years carrying modules for its new space station, Tiangong, fulfilling a key element of its “Project 921” crewed space program drafted in 1992.
The launch on April 29 was for Tianhe, the control center and living quarters of the station, capable of housing three astronauts long-term or six short-term. The finished station is to include two research modules and help operate the powerful Xuntian space telescope, meant to improve upon the Hubble Space Telescope. This is in addition to China’s Chang’e moon missions and deep-space explorations focusing on Mars.
This all comes at a time when the future of the aging International Space Station is uncertain. Although the US Senate has passed bills to extend its operations until 2030, it means that Tiangong-2 could become the only space station in orbit by the end of the decade, forcing researchers to play by Beijing’s rules if they want to conduct space experiments.
While China has every right to develop a space program, the rest of the world must keep applying pressure to ensure that safety is taken seriously — after all, it is in Beijing’s interest to maintain a positive image if it hopes to cash in on the prestige of space dominance.
One surefire way to dent that image would be to indulge in careless oversight like last week’s example, not to mention tasteless propaganda. In one egregious example, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission on May 1 posted photographs of the Tianhe-1 launch and a funeral pyre in India on Sina Weibo with the caption: “China lighting a fire versus India lighting a fire.”
If China truly wants to challenge the US as a space superpower, it must clean up its act as well as its debris.
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