Tsinghua? 'Twas almost au revoir!
If you have read my previous aerospace law posts, you will be fully aware of the Cosmos 1408 satellite incident back in November (which, for those unaware, involved the Russian's conducting an anti-satellite missile test by shooting down one of their old satellites, sending thousands of shards of debris in all directions as a result). Well, it appears that the Chinese have now felt the effects of this, with their Tsinghua satellite coming within 14.5 metres of being knocked out by this debris. I should caveat this by saying that I am a tad cynical when it comes to the intentions of certain nations and their space acitivities, so this report by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) could well be embellished for effect. In fact, Professor McDowell has even said that their numbers are 'meaningless' as they are unlikely to have the technology to be able to accurately track beyond being within a 'few hundred metres' of another object, so perhaps I'm not so cynical after all.
Despite this, according to CNSA, the relative speed of the two objects was above 11,700mph, which I needn't tell you is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Especially considering that the ISS has already been hit by a piece of this debris, and the tension between the Chinese, US and Russian governments regarding space activities. Moreover, as attested to by CNSA's deputy director Liu Jing, with each orbit aroudn Earth, the satellite and debris are getting closer and closer, making a future impact almost a certainty (that is unless they can programme evasive manoeuvres which are timed correctly with each passing).
This brings me nicely to a point I have made multiple times previously: we MUST act now to clean up space. No excuses, no blaming each other. And whilst I am by no means an expert, or an acknowledged figure in the industry, I am at least not alone in this view. Huang Zhicheng, for example, says that "it is not only necessary to conduct research on experimental devices or spacecraft to remove space debris, but also to formaulte corresponding international laws and regulations on the generation of space debris under the framework of the UN". Additionally, start-ups like ClearSpace are being heavily invested in to invent and prove methods of cleaning up space debris, suggesting that the issue is at least garnering some attention, even if teh true gravity of the situation is yet to be acknowledged or understood by many.
With this in mind, does it not make it all the more astonishing that Elon Musk's SpaceX have launched hundreds of satellites over the last year (with almost 2,000 currently in orbit as part of their 'Starlink' constellation), with plans to launch up to 42,000 satellites for each of the next generation constellations?! Granted, it is a noble conquest Elon is on, trying to provide internet access and GPS availability to even the poorest parts of the world. However, given what I mentioned in a previous article (which was the observation that as satellite numbers increase to the power of 10, the amount of collisions increase by the power of 100), does it not seem counter-intuitive to invest such large sums of money into massive constellations when it must be obvious to those at SpaceX that a significant portion of these satellites will either be completely destroyed, or at least partly damaged, by space debris (thus rendering the whole project void until the root cause is addressed)? The facts don't lie, so let us quicker look at one. Since the first Starlink satellites were launched in February 2018, almost 200 of them have either been decommissioned or have failed. That means that almost 10% of the satellites launched are no longer active, and a large portion of that is due to man-made obstacles like space debris. In truth then, any company or country (yes, I'm looking at you Rwanda (speaking of which, what are you going to do with 300,000 satellites??)) launching more satellites than absolutely necessary at the moment is simply compounding the problem, being just as at fault and guilty as those they publically criticise.
This leads me back to the beginning of this article. I sympathise greatly with the team behind the Tsinghua satellite in respect of it being a massive undertaking to design, develop, build and launch this satellite, so to lose it over debris which resulted from the reckless behaviour of another country would be horrid and extremely frustrating for them. However, there is also a lot of the pot calling the kettle black going on here. The Chinese started testing anti-satellite missiles in 2007 and have since amassed a vast arsenal of the weapons. This, of course, has meant that many satellites have been destroyed along the way, resulting in massive quantities of space junk being released into orbit. Not only this, but at the time of the Russian test in November last year, CNSA were among only a few organisations who did not publically condemn their behaviour, opting to stay completely silent on the matter instead. So, whilst it is a tragedy that the inevitable is playing out in slow-motion before our eyes, it's not as if the warning signs were not there. And to now see that it's the same countries who created this mess being the victims of space debris derived damage, one would think this would be enough to encourage quick developments on methods of dealing with the issue. The question for me is, I suppose, am I cynical in thinking nothing will come of this? And, at what point will the pot call itself black?