China Space Launches Shower Rocket Debris and Fuel Over Local Villages

November 28, 2019 Updated: November 28, 2019

News Analysis

China is the global leader in space launches this year. But its ambitious space launch activities have endangered human lives as rocket debris and toxic fuel have destroyed rural farming villages, and even caused deaths.

China stretched its lead in 2019 for space liftoffs with a 29th launch on Nov. 27 from XiChang Satellite Launch Center. A main driver for Chinese volume is operating six of the world’s eight top launch centers. Unlike nations that restrict launches to over empty ocean and desolate areas, China simply launches over populated villages with little warning.

With China in a race with the United States to dominate space, the Communist Party authorities chose to provide exceptional media access on April 20 to watch the 100th mission of its highly successful Long March-3 booster rocket series that lifted a powerful second stage rocket to deploy its Beidou-3I1Q navigation satellite into geosynchronous orbits.

USC Professor and NASA space flight expert Greg Autry first called attention to China’s dangerous space launch activities in May 2019. As co-author with Peter Navarro (Assistant to the President and U.S. Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy) of the “Death by China” book and award winning movie (free on YouTube), Autry is an effective critic of environmental and health-safety dangers associated with Chinese industry.

The Chinese launch broadcast from the blast center was staged to perfection, and blast-off and downstream flight video got rave reviews. But Autry highlighted that temperatures in the main combustion chamber for space launch boosters during the 127-second burn can exceed 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit (3,315.6 degrees Celsius).

He called attention to a video smuggled out by an Israeli tourist last year that recorded a spent booster rocket falling on a village, followed by unspent rocket propellant exploding into a fireball and generating a toxic mushroom cloud.

The Chinese regime admitted the incident caused 6 deaths and 57 injuries, but has made no comment on civilian casualty reports from the other 99 Long March-3 booster rocket launches. Videos from the Sina Weibo microblogging site show space junk debris from recent launches lying in farmer fields and a rocket in a local river.

The Long March 3B is powered by a hypergolic mix of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. UDMH fuel is a known carcinogen that is especially dangerous because it mixes easily with water. The rocket’s N204 oxidizer is also known to cause liver damage. Three returning U.S. astronauts barely avoided serious injury when they were exposed to N204 during the splashdown phase of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission.

In November, local officials in Sichuan Province distributed evacuation notices to residents a few days ahead of the XiChang blast-offs that warned people to take shelter before the launch and run away from any rocket debris falling from the skies. But just before the launches, Chinese social media exploded with photos and videos of fallen rocket pieces crushing buildings, starting fires and escaping peasant farm families shrieking in terror.

The Chinese scientists pioneered rudimentary rockets in the year 900. But after launching its first Long March rocket based on Soviet technology in 1970, China sent a human into space in 2003 and placed its Chang4 lander on the far side of the moon in January.

U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley warned at the CyberSat19 Conference on Nov. 7 that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force is playing a strategy of the board game “Go” invented in China thousands of years ago where players strategically place stones on a board to capture the most territory.

“The object of Go is to block and deny territory to your opponent. Unlike chess, you’re not going after a king or a queen and there’s not a final move where you’re declared victor. You add up points on the board based on the amount of territory or space that you control. Think of that in the context of aerial denial and aerial defense,” Ashley said.

Under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the number of satellites in space has increased from about 1,150 to 4,994 currently. The spike is due not only to a doubling of launches by China, but the beginning of a “new era” of multiple deployments per launch of commercial microsatellites weighting less than 10 kg.

China planned to pay for its game to militarize space through commercial satellite launches for Western nations. But America’s “SpaceX Reusable Launch System” has driven down the cost of launching a satellite from $5,685 per kilogram (/kg) in 2016 to $1,891/kg with its Falcon 9 rocket in 2017, and is quoting $951/kg for 2020 missions.

Chriss Street is an expert in macroeconomics, technology, and national security. He has served as CEO of several companies and is an active writer with more than 1,500 publications. He also regularly provides strategy lectures to graduate students at top Southern California universities.

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