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China’s Space Program: Triumphs and Tribulations

China’s space industry has achieved remarkable milestones over the past decades. Despite a history of mishaps, the country’s ambitious space program has propelled it into the ranks of global space superpowers.

The 1996 Long March 3B Disaster

In 1996, the Long March 3B rocket stood ready to launch an American-made satellite into orbit. After some moments after lift-off, the rocket veered off course. And crashed into the village of Mayelin near the Xichang Launch Centre. The crash resulted in a massive explosion and widespread damage. Officially, China reported six fatalities. But US defense officials estimated the death toll to be in the hundreds.

This disaster led to a significant shift in US-China space relations. American space companies quickly retreated from collaborations with China. Thus leading to the strict export controls that still exist today.

Rapid Growth Despite Setbacks in China’s Space Program

Despite early setbacks, China has made significant progress in space exploration. The country has launched its own space station, landed a probe on the dark side of the moon. Along with that developed a satellite constellation to rival GPS.

However, China’s space program has faced numerous challenges. Last week, Space Pioneer, a private rocket business, experienced a significant failure during a “static fire” test of its Tianlong-3 launcher.  The rocket broke free from its moorings and crashed into a mountain near Gongyi. State media reported no casualties.

Environmental and Safety Concerns

China’s space program has also been criticized for its environmental and safety practices. Videos on social media frequently show burning rocket debris landing dangerously close to civilian areas.

Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics, notes that China often uses hazardous solid propellants and launches rockets from inland sites. Thus increasing the risk of debris landing in populated areas. He goes on to say, “What’s appalling is that they use hazardous solid propellants and launch from inland rather than the coast line, as every non-Communist country does, so the debris lands in the ocean rather than on your population.”

Historically, China’s rockets used toxic fuels such as nitrogen tetroxide, liquid hydrazine, and red fuming nitric acid. These fuels are highly toxic and carcinogenic, and their byproducts can be deadly.

Comparing with the West

Western rocket companies have moved towards less toxic fuels like kerosene and liquid oxygen. SpaceX, for instance, uses methane for its Raptor engines, which produces fewer emissions.

China’s approach to rocket fuels stems from Cold War technology, which emphasized stability and storability over safety. According to Jack-James Marlow, head of engineering at Scottish rocket company Skyrora, storability is a significant advantage because it allows for smaller launch vehicles and base infrastructure.

Rob Adlard of British rocket company Gravitilab is concerned about China’s usage of red fuming nitric acid, saying, “The red fuming nitric acid is extremely harmful. We see those photographs [from China] and think, ‘My God, I can’t believe they’re doing this.'”

Space Debris and Militarisation

China’s space activities have also contributed to space debris. In 2007, the Chinese military launched a missile that destroyed a weather satellite, creating the largest field of space debris ever. This debris continues to pose hazards for future missions.

US Space Force officials have voiced concerns about China’s potential to place nuclear weapons in space, highlighting the ongoing militarisation of space.

Future Prospects of Chinese Space Exploration

Despite these issues, China’s space program continues to grow. In 2023, China conducted 222 launches, second only to the US. The country is also developing reusable launch systems similar to SpaceX’s technology.

China aspires to participate in the commercial space sector and make rapid progress. According to Skyrora’s Marlow, China intends to move quickly into the competitive commercial space market. It has the potential to reduce waste and speed up the process.

Adlard of Gravitilab, whose company is working on a hybrid rocket system with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, views China’s space program as operating in a “parallel universe” with practices that would be unacceptable in the West. He notes, “They do things that would just be totally unacceptable.”

China’s space program is a blend of remarkable achievements and significant challenges. As the country continues to push the boundaries of space exploration, it must address environmental and safety concerns to ensure sustainable and responsible progress.

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