Published: 00:23, May 9, 2024
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International cooperation a highlight of China’s space program
By Quentin Parker

I attended the annual China Space Day event on April 24-25 in Wuhan at the invitation of Chinese Academician Professor Deng Yulin of the Beijing Institute of Technology and the Chinese Society of Astronautics. I was privileged to be able to attend again after I visited Hefei for the same event last year.

The focus this time was on the establishment of key cooperation programs in space exploration and development with Latin American countries and the Caribbean. There were also key announcements of new missions, particularly payloads for the lunar Chang’e 7 mission. Again, there is a very strong international flavor, just as was the case for science payloads for Chang’e 5 and Chang’e 6. As China’s 2022 white paper on space exploration policy and plans makes crystal clear, such internationalization and cooperation are crucial and prominent features of China’s intent. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is interested in Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8, but more about that in a future article.

At the event, I gave a talk on the threat to the low Earth orbit (LEO) environment (i.e., 350 to 1,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface) by space debris. This was on the very eve of the launch of Shenzhou XVIII, taking three taikonauts to China’s Tiangong space station (TSS). In a curious coincidence, this was just as news was breaking that the TSS had suffered a debris impact event weeks earlier that affected power generation. This has led to a mission component of Shenzhou XVIII to install space debris protection enhancements for piping, cables, and critical equipment. The threat of catastrophic debris events in LEO is increasing all the time. Indeed, some models predict that the environment will be lost to the “Kessler Syndrome” of cascading catastrophic debris fields, destroying all LEO satellites as early as 2035. This is only 10 years from now. Our modern-technology-based lives will effectively end, at least in the short term, if this crucial environment is lost. Most people have no idea how much of the technology on which our everyday systems rely depends on data sent to the Earth from satellites in LEO. Uses include mobile phones, banking, business, logistics, in-flight Wi-Fi, and much more. So we must protect and preserve LEO for a sustainable future in space and a better-connected life on the ground.

Currently, some aspects of our use of LEO are akin to the US’ 19th-century “Wild West”, and there is an urgent need for enforceable regulations on how we manage and protect the environment. This is a global resource, not the plaything of prosperous commercial enterprises and even countries to do as they please. China is taking the lead in at least internal compliance in ensuring that what goes up must come down before becoming part of the space debris problem. My university has expertise in space law, and I believe the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s strong attributes in regulatory and compliance excellence under the Basic Law could play a global role here, given the proper support and circumstances, as there is a clear opportunity. To emphasize this point, the University of Hong Kong will be hosting an international conference on space sustainability in early December with our Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne Swiss partners, so I was busy inviting Wuhan delegates wherever possible.

So, as I reflect on another amazing China Space Day event in Wuhan, I wonder if the HKSAR could be honored to host a China Space Day in the years to come

Moving on a little, signals have also been circling at the meeting and elsewhere that a Hong Kong taikonaut has finally been chosen. We expect a formal announcement soon about this much-anticipated and highly exciting development. It is as reliable a sign as you will find that the Chinese mainland is serious about engaging and integrating Hong Kong into the great national focuses on science, technology and, especially for me, space research and exploration.

Lately, there has been much commentary about the need for the HKSAR to get its mojo back via so-called big “blue riband” public events such as concerts, sporting extravaganzas and international conferences. This is to attract more overseas tourists and mainland visitors, whereas recent traffic has been going the other way as mainland shopping and culinary enjoyment catch on due to the lower prices and quality services. One thing that is not mentioned so much is Hong Kong’s capacity to host major international scientific and technological conferences. These highlight the city’s excellence as a suitable venue for bringing together such professional events where scientists, technologists, and science policymakers worldwide can interact, collaborate and connect. Here, we are making use of our role as an international superconnector to link people, groups, institutes, and countries that might otherwise find it challenging to meet, using as a magnet our prowess as a tertiary education powerhouse in science and engineering.

As it happens, another piece of relevant news arrived in my inbox while in Wuhan. It was a formal decision from the Executive Committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), meeting in Helsinki, Finland, that HKU-LSR and so the HKSAR have been ratified as the host city for the Asia-Pacific Regional IAU Meeting in 2026. This is one of the most significant international astronomy meetings on the calendar, held only once every three years. It is second only in significance to the IAU general assembly itself, which was held in China back in 2012 and was opened by then-vice-president Xi Jinping. The IAU is the eminent global body for the astronomical community, so this is a big deal for our community and, I would argue, for our city. It is anticipated that between 500 and 1,000 scientists and astrophysicists from 40-plus countries will attend. This will enable us to showcase our strengths in astronomy and planetary sciences and our increasing strengths in space science, associated technologies, and also in entrepreneurial, and space mission domains.

So, as I reflect on another amazing China Space Day event in Wuhan, I wonder if the HKSAR could be honored to host a China Space Day in the years to come.

The author is director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.