One reason [some US space personnel] won’t collaborate with China on space exploration.

[See Update 2, below for a brief explanation of why I've changed the title of this post from 'One reason the US won't collaborate with China on space exploration,' to its current version.]

I’m a big fan of China’s space program (any space program, really) and nobody cheers louder when it pulls off successful missions. So, needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that China had launched its second lunar probe, Chang’e II, over the weekend. But my excitement was quickly tempered by photos of Chinese farmland littered with solid rocket booster debris that rained down in the aftermath of the launch (image from via shanghaiist).

Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I am a space buff – and like any space buff worth his salt, I know that – barring an accident – solid rocket boosters don’t just accidentally fall onto populated areas. Mission designers can predict with certainty where these things fall – thus, NASA’s ability to retrieve the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. In any case, this morning I received an email from an acquaintance who has worked with NASA in the past. With his permission, I quote (anonymously):

[O]ne of two problems here. Either the rocket boosters didn’t burn up in the atmosphere as designed (failure of design) or the mission planners didn’t give a s*** if they landed in a populated area. If the first then you’ve got a program that isn’t capable of something that the US program figured out decades ago. If the second then you’ve got a program that’s willing to sacrifice civilian lives to send up a probe. Either way you’ve got a program that the US can’t work with forgetting even that nat’l security is an issue.

As an addendum, I think it’s worth pointing out that, in the past, the Chinese have launched US satellites from the same facility as Chang’e II, and that one of those launches – in 1996 – resulted in the destruction of large swaths of Xichang. That incident and others that place civilians at risk are among the reasons that the Chinese are building a new launch facility on Hainan Island. Presumably, once operational, that facility’s debris will fall into the ocean.

[UPDATE: In the comments, below, Sean - a frequent commentator - notes:

They do evacuate parts of three provinces that are in the range of the falling rocket boosters and satellite debris. Parts of Guizhou, Sichuan and Jiangxi are where the debris is expected to fall, and in Guizhou alone, around 200 thousand people are evacuated.]

[UPDATE 2: I've received a couple of emails from people suggesting that these sorts of incidents aren't, in fact, the basis for any sort of US gov't space policy. That's true, and I concede that the original title - "One reason why the US won't collaborate with China on space exploration' - was a bit over-the-top. Thus, I've changed it. The person who emailed me the above comment on the Chang'e 2 booster was writing as a knowledgeable individual who had worked with NASA in the past, and his comment reflected the consensus of some of his colleagues - not the US gov't. My apologies if the original title implied otherwise.]

[UPDATE 3: In a very detailed, very interesting comment (4, below), Tom suggests that the images in question show a payload fairing, and not a rocket booster. I've just emailed the person who sent me the email that set off this post, in the first place, to see if there's a response.]

Eclipse Eclipsed.

I spent the last 24 hours out in Sheshan, in southwest Shanghai, where I was covering the eclipse for a dispatch that should be out shortly. Below, an image of a few of the several hundred observers who gathered atop the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory (built by the Jesuits in the 1890s, and operated by them until the 1950s). In the background, the Sheshan Basilica. In any case, don’t be fooled by the photo: the crowd enjoyed perhaps 15 minutes of clear skies, at the beginning of the eclipse. By the time we’d become accustomed to watching the event, a downpour started. As one gentleman put it: “The eclipse has been eclipsed.”


But I’m not complaining!  Rain or not, it was a remarkable sensation, being plunged into darkness for five minutes at mid-morning. And, best of all - experiencing the rapid return of daylight. It felt as if someone had just turned on the overhead lights. I’m hooked – when’s the next one? More shortly …

[UPDATE: "Shortly" is now ... "Eclipse at Sheshan Hill" is now up at the Atlantic.]

Save the Eclipse: An Open Letter to the Honorable Han Zheng, Mayor of Shanghai

Dear Mr. Mayor:

As you are no doubt aware, the longest eclipse of the century will pass over your city on Wednesday morning. This singular event is not exclusive to Shanghai, of course: the narrow path will wind over much of Asia, into the Pacific. But, needless to say, international media organziations with an interest in covering this singular event aren’t going to station their cameras in, say, backwater Chongqing. No, they want to cover the century’s longest eclipse from the Century’s City; they want to cover it from Shanghai. Thus, whether you planned for it or not, you and your colleagues at City Hall are now faced with an unprecedented opportunity to promote Shanghai’s image to the world.

Unfortunately, it has come to my atttention that forces outside of China are conspiring to spoil this eclipse and Shanghai’s opportunity to shine on the world stage. I am, of course, referring to the jet stream. According to a briefing prepared by your city’s dilligent and devoted metereologists, and posted to the official Shanghai website: “Dense cloud threatens to keep eclipse watchers in the dark.

[UPDATED July 20: The City of Shanghai website appears to have resigned itself to clouds and rain.]

Sir, this is a PR disaster in the making. Do you really want camera crews broadcasting darkening rain clouds over, say, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, when viewers in, say – Minneapolis – expect to see the moon’s disc obscuring the sun’s? Are you willing to tolerate the national humiliation of watching CNN resort to, say, footage of the eclipse taken in Japan (where “maximum eclipse” will actually last longer than in Shanghai), rather than at the Yangshan Deep Water Port? Me. Neither.

So, with humility, I offer a solution. Continue reading

Darkness will descend upon Shanghai.

The second half of 2009 includes all kinds of anniversaries that seem to have the Chinese government – and much of the population – in a tizzy. Here at Shanghai Scrap, we’re in less of a tizzy, but we understand, believe me. Nonetheless, we are of the opinion that the most important date on the 2009 Chinese calendar  has nothing to do with politics, but is, instead, ordinary old Wednesday, July 22. What, you may be asking, is so important about July 22, 2009? Well, at 9:35 AM, local time, Shanghai is going to experience an unusually long (five minutes or so) Total Solar Eclipse. And, at a bare minimum, that’s gonna make for one hell of a Wednesday morning rush hour.

Hopefully, though, it’ll be something much more (we’re going to have much more to say about it in the coming weeks). So, in the interest of getting the ball rolling, Shanghai Scrap is proud to point interested readers to NASA’s eclipse website, and its extensive coverage of this event. It includes a nifty interactive map of the eclipse and, below, a NASA map of the shadow as it’ll cross over the Shanghai region (click the map for a detailed .pdf). We’re gonna be right in the middle of this thing, folks.


Here at Shanghai Scrap, we’re in no position to guess at the economic effect of the eclipse (anybody out there in a position to comment on the role of eclipses in Chinese astrology?), but I’m sure that at least a few hotels south of town are going to be deeply appreciative of eclipse tour groups, like this one, that have been scouting the Shanghai region for appropriate viewing areas since last year (check out this amazingly detailed scouting report). Here’s wishing clear skies and no visa problems to all of them.

[For the time being, Shanghai Scrap is unwilling to disclose the location from which the staff will be observing the event. But trust me, it's premium. By the way: with this post, I'm coming clean about being a lifelong space geek, and adding a new "Universe" category to the blog.]