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Kiwis shouldn’t worry about Chinese space junk crashing into NZ, but our own space waste is an issue — professor

Wellingtonians don’t need to be too concerned about debris from a detached Chinese space rocket crashing there, but New Zealand should be mindful of its own space junk now it launches things into space, a leading professor has said.

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University of Auckland’s professor Richard Easther said China was being cagey about the capabilities of the detached rocket that could make an uncontrolled entry into the atmosphere. Source: Breakfast

University of Auckland’s professor Richard Easther told Breakfast today that China was being guarded about the capabilities of the detached rocket that could make an uncontrolled entry into the atmosphere and crash anywhere from Wellington to Beijing.

“A lot of people who operate in space are cagey about the full capabilities of their launch vehicles and this would be no different,” Easther said.

He added that it appeared to be by design that the Long March 5B rocket, which launched a module for China’s space station last Thursday, make an uncontrolled re-entry back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Easther said there is no one organisation or treaty governing space tidiness but increased traffic going into space is making it more of an issue.

“There are a variety of international treaties, there are organisations that establish rules and expectations, more expectations than rules [around space junk],” Easther said.

“There has been debate about the [SpaceX] Starlink satellites, for instance, not so much for the fact that they’ll come back to earth but because they provide a visual pollution of the skies.

“They provide internet service for people in rural areas. There are people using it in New Zealand.

“The trade-off between these things is going to be much sharper than when you only had a handful of launches and a handful of objects in space.

“We’re seeing a transition from the occasional or exceptional use of space, where behaviour might have been reasonable, to where we are getting to the routine use of space. You’re saying that may have been OK 20 or 30 years ago, but we can’t be doing this on the regular because sooner or later it’s going to cause problems.”

Easther said the Government has protections in place for anyone launching into space from Aotearoa.

“The New Zealand Government, If you wanted to launch a large rocket from New Zealand soil, one of the things they would ask you is what is your orbital debris mitigation plan, what design features does the thing you are launching have to stop this from occurring. The difference is, of course, that the rockets we launch are much smaller than this one.”