The Importance of Global Space Cooperation
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The China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched the Long March-5B rocket on April 29, carrying the Tianhe module, the first piece of their upcoming space station intended to be the Chinese counterpart to the International Space Station. Several days later, debris from the rocket measuring 98 feet, longer than a semi-truck, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Indian Ocean. Those in charge of the mission had hoped that the debris would fully burn up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere or land in an ocean. Even with oceans covering about 71 percent of our planet, the risk of debris falling on inhabited land and causing property damage or even casualties was still too high.
Unlike other countries, China mysteriously sent its entire rocket into orbit instead of letting it predictably fall back to Earth immediately after discharging its payload. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) then censured China for its irresponsible actions. NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson said, “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also emphasized the importance of creating requirements for those who operate in space. The recent Long March-5B incident is proof that there must be safety standards and regulations in order to ensure the safety of Earth as a whole.
Currently, one of the few guidelines set by the United Nations (UN) regarding the behavior of countries in space is the Outer Space Treaty. A key principle of it is that, “States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.” If China’s Long March-5B rocket landed on another nation’s territory, the Chinese government would have had to pay reparations for the damage caused. However, this treaty is part of a reactive approach, addressing disaster after its occurrence rather than preventing it. In the UN’s more general Space Law, a majority of the regulations are similar in nature.
With no proper global safety precautions set, there have been several historical incidents involving other countries. Ironically, NASA’s first space station, Skylab, fell out of orbit in 1979 into the Indian Ocean and parts of Western Australia. The Soviet Union, another major space power, was also responsible for dangerous space behavior as fragments of the Salyut 7 space station fell over Argentina in 1991. Luckily, most of it burned up during its descent.
It is fortunate that there were no severe casualties in these previous incidents. Unfortunately, laws are typically made after a tragedy compels change. Coming up with rules to ensure safety will prove to be a challenge, but such a task is essential to prevent damage to property and people foremost. An important first step is to require space companies and agencies to come up with a reentry plan when necessary and also verify its precision. Creating and funding global programs that will do so is vital. Once these basic rules are put into place, detailed regulations should follow.
Another crucial issue is space junk, the 170 million pieces of man-made debris orbiting around Earth that range from less than one millimeter wide to entire nonfunctional spacecrafts. The US government estimates that 200 to 400 objects fall into Earth’s atmosphere every year as a result of incidents, similar to the recent Long March one. One such example is the destruction of the Fengyun-1C satellite that produced thousands of pieces of debris, all of which are still orbiting the planet. These pieces of debris often travel at tremendously high speeds, sometimes even reaching 18,000 miles per hour, seven times faster than a bullet. This makes even small debris hazardous to manned and unmanned spacecraft. In fact, the International Space Station (ISS) had to perform 26 maneuvers using small boosters in its 20-year history to avoid space debris. Currently, NASA has implemented a process to limit the production of more debris, but only on a national and not a global scale. More regulations regarding reentry would also help ease the space debris crisis.
Nations across the globe must come together to ensure the safety of future space travel and exploration. Space agencies cannot allow an uncontrolled reentry of any space vehicle into Earth’s atmosphere to save money and run a seemingly minimal risk. They must ensure that danger to civilians around the world is nothing higher than zero. It is better to spend time and money now pushing for proactive space safety laws than it is to continue a reactive policy that risks countries paying the price of carelessness with lost lives and humiliation.