China to work harder to clean up its act in space

Published 4 September 2007

China is now the most polluted — and most polluting — country on Earth; at least the Chinese government has now committed to clean up its activities in space — which is good news for U.S. commercial and military intetrests

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran the frist of a series of articles about the growing problem of pollution in China. In journalism school they teach you to begin your article with a vivid, captivating paragrasph, and the Times writers do just that:

No country in history has emerged as a major industrial power without creating a legacy of environmental damage that can take decades and big dollops of public wealth to undo. But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so its pollution problem has shattered all prcedents. Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international reprecussions, that polluiton poses not only a mjaor long-term burden on the Chinese public, but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.

Give Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, the writers of the series, an A.

China may be slow to do something about pollution here on Earth, but it has moved forward on cleaning up its act in space. This is good news for the United States: The American economy — and the American military — are much more dependent on space assets of all types, and cleaner space means a safer operating environment for these assets. The Chinese government annoucned it was implementing a wide series of measures to reduce the amount of debris left in orbit by Chinese rockets and satellites, and to develop a space-surveillance tool to determine what is in orbit, Chinese space-debris experts said. The measures, some of which already have been put into place, include techniques already adopted by some other space powers to reorbit retired satellites out of the geostationary orbital arc and to render Chinese rocket upper stages passive in orbit by emptying their fuel tanks to prevent the threat of explosion and debris propagation. The Chinese government has been a member of the eleven-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) since the mid-1990s, but Chinese officials concede they have been slow to adopt debris-prevention or debris-mitigation measures.

Space news’s Peter Selding writes that China’s seriousness about space debris has been thrown into question since the January test of a mobile ground-based Chinese missile which was used to destroy a retired Chinese meteorological satellite, in the process creating thousands of pieces of orbital debris in a heavily used region of low Earth orbit. The universal criticism of the Chinese test led China to cancel a scheduled April IADC meeting in Bejing. The meeting was switched to July in Toulouse, France. China sent a full delegation to the meeting, which featured at least one blunt exchange between U.S. and Chinese delegates regarding January’s test of the anti-satellite missile.

China’s space-debris research is based at the Purple Mountain Astronomical Observatory, a Chinese Academy of Sciences facility located in Nanjing and home to the Center for Space Debris Observation and Research. The center and related institutes, working under China’s 11th Five-Year Plan from 2006-2010, are working on four debris-related aspects — space debris surveillance; collision avoidance; satellite debris protection; and debris mitigation. Two optical telescopes, one a 25-inch (65-centimeter) fixed facility and the other a 10-inch (25-centimeter) car-mounted telescope, have been developed as space-surveillance tools and have been used to time the launch of China’s astronaut-carrying capsules to avoid heavier concentrations of debris in low-Earth orbit, Li said. A Hypervelocity Impact Center created by Harbin Institute of Technology has been created and tasked with developing technologies to shield spacecraft from debris.

Debris mitigation has been the focus of much IADC work to persuade space powers to take measures to reduce the debris-creating potential of their rocket upper stages and their satellites. The U.S. Space Command’s Space Surveillance Network, in a catalogue dated 4 July, said China has created 2,296 pieces of space debris, behind the 4,281 pieces from Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union, and 4,189 pieces for which U.S. launches are responsible. Space Command’s public catalogue lists only pieces of debris about four inches or larger.

-read more in Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes,” New York Times, 26 August 2007 (sub. req.)