A recent incident in which a Chinese rocket crashed back to Earth highlights the need for greater action on ‘space junk’, according to the head of Scottish rocket company Skyrora.
Having recently transported equipment for use in China’s new space station, the remains of the 18-tonne Chinese Long March 5B missile plunged into the Indian Ocean last week.
Although no debris landed on populated areas, western officials voiced serious concerns over the mishap. Conversely, Chinese authorities played down the severity of the situation, insisting that concerns were driven largely by media ‘hype’.
This isn’t the first incident of its kind involving Chinese rocket tech. In May last year, debris from the same model of rocket landed in the Ivory Coast. No deaths or injuries were reported, but the news did prompt discussions over the potential risks of rocket launches.
Skyrora chief executive Volodymyr Levykin said the latest incident is one that should be prevented from happening again. However, the ever-increasing volume of space junk orbiting the Earth makes the situation even more precarious.
Space junk poses a very minor risk to population centres on the ground, but for satellites or manned space crafts orbiting the planet, the risk is far higher, he warned.
“The world had to watch and hold its breath to see where the debris from the Chinese Long March-5b vehicle would hit the Earth. But events like this shouldn’t be happening,” Levykin said.
“There are around 34,000 objects above 10cm in size in Earth’s orbit that would be considered space junk – 3,000 of which are redundant satellites. Moving at around 10km per second, these objects could seriously damage operational satellites or even the International Space Station.”
According to Levykin, the incident highlights the importance of clearing redundant satellites and the varied range of space junk that currently orbits the earth.
“It’s vital that something is done to address the situation before disaster strikes – and we’re faced with the loss of crucial services, or worse still, loss of life,” he said.
Skyrora is in the process of developing a ‘space tug’, which the company says could come to play a crucial role in tackling the issue.
The firm has already successfully completed tests on the model, which involved a full mission duration static fire test of the upper (or third) stage of its orbital-class vehicle, Skyrora XL
Development of the craft forms a key part of the company’s mission to improve space sustainability.
It has also developed a new way of launching satellites without damaging the environment as well as creating an eco-friendly fuel that ensures the UK has the most environmentally friendly space industry in the world
“Every launch, regardless of who is behind it or where it’s launching from, should now include some sort of space tug to make sure these uncontrolled re-entries are a thing of the past,” he said.
“It’s not only about helping the planet or clearing up the mess orbiting it but about protecting the crucial infrastructure that’s taken decades and trillions of dollars to build, which could effectively be wiped out in an instant.”
Skyrora recently secured €3M in funding from the European Space Agency, which it says will be used to complete the Skyrora XL programme to deliver consistent orbital launches from the UK.
Skyrora XL is a 23-metre, 56-tonne, three-stage rocket capable of carrying up to 315kg into orbit.
The vehicle is on course to be test-launched in 2022 from a UK spaceport and the project is set to generate 170 high-skilled jobs.
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