The Long March 5, China’s biggest and most powerful rocket, passed over Luzon early Tuesday morning, raising concerns over Philippine national security and the safety of communities within its flight path. The rocket is the size of a 20-storey building and capable of carrying a payload of 25 tons—equivalent to the weight of 16 cars, according to China’s Xinhua News Agency .
The Long March 5 lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province in the southernmost part of China on November 24 at 4:30 a.m., Philippine time. Footage from China’s state-run CGTN YouTube channel shows it passing over Luzon and the Pacific Ocean on its way to orbit. The launch was part of China’s
ambitious Chang’e 5 lunar exploration mission, a landmark bid to become only the third country in the world after the US and Russia to retrieve and return lunar rock samples to Earth.
ISSUE OF NATIONAL, SPACE SECURITY
"It's a potential national security and space security issue if we regularly have rocket components flying over and possibly crashing into Philippine territory," said astrophysicist Rogel Mari Sese, former program leader of the National Space Development Program (NSDP) and current chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Ateneo de Davao University.
“One of the Key Development Areas of our Philippine Space Development and Utilization Policy is National Security and Development. Hence, there is a national security concern given the trajectory of the rocket launches from Hainan Island,” told ABS-CBN News.
Sese lauded the scientific value of the Chang’e 5 mission but also underscored the necessity of intergovernmental coordination to ensure public safety. According to him, even though some launch schedules are known weeks or even months beforehand, many things could go wrong mere moments before and throughout the duration of the launch.
“At least inform the Philippine government before and while the launch happens. Keep the country in the loop, because we’re downrange of it,” Sese stressed.
“With the launch facility on Hainan Island being crucial to China's space plan, we expect launches like these to be more frequent in the future,” he added.
The increase in launch activity raises the potential for failure and the risk of space debris falling onto populated areas within the rocket’s path. Sese cited the unexpected failure of the Long March 5 in July 2017, which saw the rocket veer off course before crashing into the Philippine Sea. Though nobody was hurt in the incident, the rocket passed close enough to the Philippines for it to be seen with the naked eye and mistaken for a UFO by some Luzon residents and by mainstream media.
JUST A PEACEFUL SPACE MISSION
However, Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) Director General Joel Marciano Jr. assured the public that there was no need to be alarmed.
“This is a peaceful space mission intended to collect lunar samples, which can contribute to scientific knowledge,” he said.
“The path of such rockets tends to pass over countries, and while the risk over this specific rocket launch may have passed, we should continue monitoring such events and practice vigilance.”
Marciano also said that PhilSA is building its capacity to track and locate space debris and is working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and other government agencies to ratify the relevant international treaties over the peaceful uses of outer space.
“Rockets (for space missions) are carefully designed and planned so that they shed over bodies of water (and not onto populated areas). But there’s still some danger, and that’s why such international conventions exist. And we need to ratify them first,” he explained.
NO LEGAL FOOTING FOR DAMAGE CLAIMS
The United Nations (UN) Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects —which provides that a state should be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage from its space objects—was acceded to and, in effect, ratified by China in 1988. However, to date, the Philippines is merely a signatory to
“We will have no legal basis to claim for damages since we did not ratify this Convention,” Sese warned.
“There’s really the risk of something going wrong, and we don’t want to wait for that to happen. We have to be proactive.”
Of the five space treaties listed by the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs, the Philippines is so far only party to the Moon Agreement, which stipulates that the Moon and other celestial bodies should only be used for peaceful purposes.