Whose space junk is about to collide with the Moon? Not ours, says China

Science & Health

Beijing has denied NASA’s report that a rocket booster set to collide with the moon came from China. As the United States and China compete for space dominance, expect a growing amount of space junk to be yet another source of tension between the two countries.

rocket parts on blue background with question marks
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

China has denied NASA’s recent report that a rocket booster forecasted to crash into the moon on March 4 was debris from China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in 2014. The NASA report had itself contradicted initial assumptions that the booster came from a used rocket made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

  • Any debris from Chang’e 5-T1 had “entered into the Earth’s atmosphere and has already been completely burned up,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wāng Wénbīn 汪文斌 said.

The denial is the latest disagreement between the U.S. and China over their space programs, as they compete to become the world’s leading power in the final frontier.

  • Last December, China notified the United Nations that it had to maneuver its space station twice last year to avoid collisions with SpaceX Starlink satellites, though Washington said the incidents never qualified as an “emergency” and that China never made contact about the close encounters.

It may get worse. Despite a growing number of objects in Earth’s orbit, there is no formal international framework to avoid collisions, though China has said it is “open to establishing formal lines of communication” with the United States on space safety.

  • Many in the industry, including NASA, fear that more objects would pose a greater risk of future collisions, and may worsen already tense relations between the world’s leading powers.

China’s space plans for the next five years were described in a recently released white paper. Beijing has a record-breaking plan to launch over 50 rockets and send more than 140 spacecraft into the Earth’s orbit this year.

  • China’s space funding has grown in recent years to $8.9 billion in 2020, though that is still a mere fraction of the United States’ $48 billion, per the Diplomat.
  • Elon Musk plans to launch an additional 30,000 satellites to power Starlink, SpaceX’s high-speed internet service. NASA said the move would “significantly boost the number of tracked objects in space — by a factor of more than five in certain lower orbits,” per the Wall Street Journal.
  • Beijing-based start-up GalaxySpace will also start building a network of 1,000 satellites to expand China’s 5G coverage and to compete with Starlink within the next three months.

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One of China’s scientific satellites also narrowly avoided a collision on January 18 with a piece of orbital debris generated by Russia blowing up one of its old satellites, the Chinese space agency said. A flock of 40 out of 49 Starlink satellites launched on February 3 were also knocked out of commission by a geomagnetic storm originating from the sun.

Nadya Yeh