Nov 15, 2022 - Science

Lack of rocket rules raises questions about space safety

Animated illustration of question marks floating in space.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The uncontrolled fall of pieces of a large rocket launched by China is exposing the potentially extreme consequences of eroding norms in space.

Why it matters: As space becomes crowded with satellites, rockets and more people, creating rules that everyone adheres to is becoming crucial for preventing damage to satellites, harm to people — and conflict among space-faring nations.

  • "The behavior of any one actor in space could affect everyone in space," Robin Dickey of the Aerospace Corporation tells Axios.

Driving the news: The core stage of one of China's Long March 5B rockets fell uncontrolled to Earth and landed in the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 4.

  • Most pieces of smaller objects like satellites burn up in the atmosphere during reentries, but large pieces of rockets can make it to the planet's surface, endangering people if they fall over populated areas.
  • NASA administrator Bill Nelson condemned the unguided reentry and said the Chinese government also "did not share specific trajectory information which is needed to predict landing zones and reduce risk" with other countries.
  • "Unfortunately there are not many renewed calls and none have a major likelihood to pressure China to change behavior," Kaitlyn Johnson, a space policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Axios.

How it works: This kind of uncontrolled crash of a large booster is a practice not purposely performed by any other major space-faring nation, including Russia.

  • Typically, the first stages of rockets are discarded before the vehicle reaches orbit and they return to Earth on a planned trajectory into the ocean — or in the case of SpaceX, land on the ground or on a drone ship for reuse.
  • But on each of its four previous flights, the 23-ton core booster stage of China's Long March 5B rocket accompanied the vehicle into orbit, where it was discarded and eventually hurtled back to Earth uncontrolled.
  • The Long March 5B is an essential component of China's space exploration program, including robotic missions to the Moon and Mars.
  • "I would suspect that until they run out of Long March 5Bs, and until they have Long March 5Cs or Ds or whatever they are confident about, they will continue to fire up big boosters and they will put the motors into orbit," Dean Cheng, a China analyst, tells Axios.

Background: China isn't the only country to have committed uncontrolled reentries, and its rocket boosters aren't the largest human-made objects to have fallen from space.

  • Pieces of NASA's SkyLab — one of the heaviest spacecraft ever produced — fell into sparsely populated Western Australia and the Indian Ocean after the space station failed to fully disintegrate through a guided but mistimed reentry in July 1979.

The big picture: The chance of being hit by falling space junk is exceedingly small, but if these types of uncontrolled reentries continue and even increase in the future, the risk of a rogue piece of junk coming down over a populated area increases.

  • The pessimistic view, according to Christopher Newman, a professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University, is that "we won't get anywhere on this until a rocket body falls on Moscow or Beijing or New York, and that's when we'll start seeing activity."
  • "I'm pessimistic in the sense that laws tend to follow problems."

The intrigue: Even if norms of behavior are enshrined in treaties or other official documents, enforcing them could be difficult because it would require concerted efforts among space-faring nations.

  • According to Cheng, China could be pressured to stop these activities if other nations "make it hurt" through tariffs, sanctions, rescinded invitations on the international stage and other consequences.
  • "Naming and shaming" of bad actions in orbit — as nations have done in the past with these uncontrolled reentries — won't be enough to stop these behaviors because they are integral to China's space program plans, Cheng says.
  • "The Chinese are not going to be embarrassed when they are doing things to match national priorities that are integrated into their five-year plans," Cheng says.

What to watch: Without rules of behavior, emerging space-faring nations may choose to replicate China's behavior, possibly making uncontrolled reentry events more common.

  • In the meantime, there are likely about eight more Long March 5Bs that could be launched in the coming years, Cheng says.
  • "It's not like these things are going to be sitting in the barn. They're going to be used. So we need to recognize there are going to be more games of Russian roulette."
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