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Aerospace expert urges more teeth for space law after China rocket crash

Renuganth Varatharajoo says the Malaysian Space Board Act 2022 needs more details and provisions to be truly effective in the event of another such incident.

Nur Shazreena Ali
3 minute read
The rocket carrying China’s second module for its Tiangong space station lifts off from Wenchang spaceport in southern China on July 24. Photo: AFP
The rocket carrying China’s second module for its Tiangong space station lifts off from Wenchang spaceport in southern China on July 24. Photo: AFP

An aerospace expert has called for further improvements to the country's space law to pre-empt adverse effects in the event of another incident such as the recent crash of debris from a Chinese rocket in parts of Sarawak. 

Renuganth Varatharajoo, a professor at Universiti Putra Malaysia, said the Malaysian Space Board Act 2022 (Act 834), gazetted on Jan 25, was a step in the right direction for the country. 

"It's good that we have our own act, but we need to enhance and improve it, and put in more provisions," he said. 

"What is important now is that all those countries that are going to launch have to actually abide by these conditions, assuming that as soon as the rocket is launched, the debris might hit and kill somebody." 

China's Long March 5B rocket, which blasted off July 24 to deliver a laboratory module to the new Chinese space station under construction in orbit, fell back to Earth over the Indian Ocean on July 30.

China had said it would closely track the debris but that it posed little risk to anyone on the ground.

Objects were later found in Kampung Nyalau, Bintulu and Kampung Sepupok Lama, Niah, Miri. The science, technology and innovation ministry said these had been sent for analysis by the chemistry department with the assistance of the Malaysian Space Agency. 

No reports were made of injuries or damage to property.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Renuganth said the chances of falling debris hitting a city were low as 70% of Earth is covered in water. 

"But this is not to say that there are zero chances. The chances of risk are always there," he said, adding that space collisions were becoming more frequent due to the growing number of vehicles launched into space.  

While Malaysia had Act 834, he said, it only described the general responsibilities of the nation in terms adopted from an international treaty by the United Nations. 

"Does Malaysia have a law to address such incidents? Yes. But can we charge for any damage caused by the spacecraft? At the moment, we can't," he said. 

For the space law to be effective, he said, it required more detailed provisions and regulations to address dangerous incidents under international space law. 

And while the international space act provided guidelines on the prevention of debris, he said, there was no standardised and coordinated space traffic management system on the global level.

"For example, let's say a piece of debris lands on your office. What happens? Are they going to pay you compensation? No. Does this treaty help address this issue? No. 

"There are no provisions for this. It's not up to that extent."

Decades ago, he said, fewer incidents occurred because there was less traffic in space. 

"Now, many countries have begun launching satellites, so traffic has grown, and we can see incidents starting to come in.

"But you can't fight it, you can't bring this to court because there are no provisions," he said. 

"This is why there are complications, because the details are not yet there."

He said Malaysia should also work with other countries so that the global space act can be extended with compensation. 

"Yes, we have our own act, but is the same act that we have here applicable and agreed to by others?

"Everyone has their own definition of space and space utilisation," he said. "Based on that, people define their own space act or space law.

"There needs to be a better understanding of space. Space is everyone's territory, it's no-man's land. And all nations need to take full responsibility for these precautions." 

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