China’s dirty and dangerous race to become a space superpower

It was supposed to be a moment of triumph for China’s space industry. The 180ft Long March 3B rocket stood on the launch pad, ready to carry an American-made satellite into orbit on its debut mission.

But just seconds after blast-off it was clear something had gone horribly wrong. In grainy video footage, the rocket is seen veering hard to the left, barely clearing the tower and torpedoing off into the night at a right angle.

It landed in the nearby village of Mayelin, near China’s Xichang Launch Centre, creating a huge fireball that flattened buildings and drenched the landscape in rocket fuel. Footage smuggled out by an Israeli engineer shows an apocalyptic landscape. In China’s official account of the incident, six people died – although US defence officials estimated the true number was in the hundreds.

The 1996 disaster precipitated a hasty retreat by US space companies from working with China – effectively bringing in a regime of strict export controls that exists to this day.

Despite the fallout, China has emerged over the last decade as a space superpower – launching a rival to the International Space Station, landing a probe on the dark side of the Moon and a satellite constellation to rival GPS.

Amid this explosive growth, China’s space industry has been dogged by a history of near-misses and environmentally damaging missions.

Just last week, a private rocket company, Space Pioneer, billed as a domestic rival to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, was conducting a “static fire” engine test of its new Tianlong-3 launcher – which translates to “heavenly dragon”.

As the name of the test would suggest, the rocket is supposed to remain locked to the launch pad while scientists analyse its thrusters. However, the vehicle broke its moorings, blasting into the sky before its engines shut down and it plummeted back to Earth, crashing into a mountain near the city of Gongyi.

The company blamed a “structural failure” for the mishap. State media reported no casualties.

Since then, a growing number of videos have emerged on social media of burning rocket parts – debris from China’s aggressive launch programme – plunging to earth perilously close to civilian infrastructure, despite the country’s censorship.

“The botched launch is not new,” says Chris Quilty, founder of space research firm Quilty Analytics. A quick search on YouTube reveals multiple videos of locals standing around scorched rocket parts in paddy fields or near villages.

He adds: “What’s appalling is they use hazardous solid propellants – and they launch from inland rather than from the coast line, like every non-Communist country, so the debris lands in the ocean instead of your populace.”

Several of China’s major launch bases, such as Xichang, are deep inland – although more modern bases, such as Wenchang, have been built on remote strips of coast.

Historically, China’s rockets have relied on dangerous fuels such as nitrogen tetroxide, liquid hydrazine and “red fuming nitric acid”. These compounds form a highly effective propellant – which is also highly toxic and carcinogenic. The fuels burn with a distinctive dirty reddish brown colour.

In part, China’s rocket fuels date back to the technology it deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War. The fuel itself is relatively stable and reliable. It can be stored easily and doesn’t need to be “cooled” before launch.

“Storability is a key advantage,” says Jack-James Marlow, head of engineering at Scottish rocket business Skyrora, as it leads to simpler launch vehicles and ground infrastructure.

But the byproducts can be deadly. Rob Adlard, of British rocket company Gravitilab, says: “The red fuming nitric acid is really bad. We look at those pictures [from China] and think, ‘My God, I can’t believe they are doing this.’

“Recently a picture did the rounds of a booster falling near a village and locals taking pictures with it. The fact is, if you were anywhere near nitric acid in the West you would be in a full hazard suit.”

In Ignition! – a colourful history of rocket fuels recommended by SpaceX’s Elon Musk – John D Clark writes that red fuming nitric acid “attacks skin and flesh with the avidity of a school of piranhas”.

US rocket scientists who experimented with these dangerous chemicals in the 1940s were nicknamed the “suicide squad”. They included a young scientist who would later spearhead China’s space programme, the country’s “king of rocketry” Qian Xuesen.

Most Western rocket companies have since leaned towards less toxic kerosene and liquid oxygen, and some are developing more environmentally friendly sources. SpaceX has turned to methane, which produces relatively fewer emissions compared to other fuels, for its latest Raptor engines.

But it is not just on the launch pad that China’s space ambitions live dangerously. In 2007, the country’s military launched a missile that destroyed a weather satellite orbiting 500 miles above the Earth. The anti-satellite missile test created the planet’s largest field of space debris, creating a hazard for future launches and missions. A US Space Force general warned in December that its satellites were still being forced to dodge the remains of the probe 16 years later.

Still China’s space industry has hardly been held back by its attitude to safety. The country hosted 222 launches in 2023, behind only the US. Even with the failure of its Tianlong-3 test, the country is also moving rapidly towards deploying reusable launch systems – similar to those of SpaceX.

Its vastly upgraded space programme has US officials worried. A report from the US-China Economic Security Review Commission warned China could try to place nuclear weapons in space, with the “potential to threaten the US homeland with a new global strike capability”. Officially, China blames the US for being the “driving force of space militarisation”.

While China’s rocket programme has grown more sophisticated, it is unlikely to halt its current approach to safety and the environment – although its most advanced rockets, such as the Long March 5, have swapped to less potent fuels.

“China wants to enter the competitive commercial space sector and get there fast,” says Skyrora’s Marlow. “It can cut corners and accelerate the process.”

Adlard, of Gravitilab, which is developing a hybrid rocket system that claims to emit 75pc less greenhouse gases, says watching China’s rocket programme is like seeing “a parallel universe”.

“They do things that would just be totally unacceptable”, he says.

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