It's Not a Mistake: China Continues to Endanger People by Allowing Rockets to Fall From the Sky After Completing Their Missions

  • The launcher that successfully put the French-Chinese SVOM satellite into orbit crashed into a mountain in the Sichuan province just minutes after its deployment.

  • To make matters worse, the launcher used hypergolic propulsion, which is cost-effective and easier to handle but extremely toxic and corrosive.

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The recent launch of a joint French-Chinese mission from China’s Sichuan province garnered more attention for how the Asian country disposes of its space propellants than for the satellite itself.

A new launch. On Saturday, a CZ-2C rocket from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 2:00 ET.

The rocket placed a French-Chinese satellite called Space Variable Objects Monitor, or SVOM, into orbit. It’s the world’s most powerful new observatory for detecting gamma-ray bursts, which are short-duration cosmic explosions that are extremely violent and emit high-energy rays.

A new lottery. Minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage separated from the second stage and began its return to Earth in free fall until it impacted on a leafy hill near the launch pad. The inhabitants of this rural area of China, who had come to watch the space launch, experienced a brief moment of panic as they saw the booster approaching with a dense yellow trail.

A highly toxic trail. The CZ-2C rocket uses hypergolic propulsion, which is cheaper and more manageable than cryogenic propulsion. However, the characteristic yellow color of its exhaust gases is a product of dinitrogen tetroxide (N₂O₄), a highly toxic and corrosive oxidant.

For its part, the fuel, called unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH), is classified as a carcinogen and can cause severe damage to the liver and other organs. In 1975, during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, three U.S. astronauts came close to serious injury when they were briefly exposed to these propellants.

China’s lenient regulations. While expendable rockets from most countries generally fall into designated ocean areas, China’s space regulations are relatively lenient compared to those of Europe and the U.S. This means Chinese rockets such as the CZ-2 and CZ-3 side boosters have landed near populated areas, releasing toxic fuel.

Potential solutions. China has made some attempts to address this issue by adding aerodynamic grids to guide the rockets away from populated areas and exploring the use of parachutes and other reusability technologies. However, as proven by the images we saw on Saturday and many times before, the slow progress in implementing these solutions raises questions about China’s urgency to make changes.

Ultimately, although China’s relaxed regulations have contributed to the rapid growth of its space program, there are concerns about the environmental and human impact associated with this growth.

Image | CASC | Weibo

Related | NASA Had Two Major Short-Term Goals, but China Is Threatening to Beat Them Both

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