China has abruptly scrapped plans for an international governmental meeting next week on how to deal with hazardous space waste, just three months after an anti-satellite weapon test that prompted international fears of an arms race in space.
China's move appears to reflect concern that the conference might become a forum for criticism of its recent destruction of an old weather satellite with a missile-launched “kinetic kill vehicle”, which scattered more than 1,500 pieces of debris.
Beijing has told leading space agencies, including Nasa of the US and Russia's Roscosmos, that it plans to hold the annual conference of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Co-ordination Committee (IADC) in November instead, an idea that has dismayed some participants.
Some say the meeting could also have highlighted the degree to which even Chinese experts on orbital debris have been kept in the dark about the effects of the anti-satellite weapon test, which was only made public by US officials.
However, the unilateral scrapping of longstanding plans for the event, which was to open in Beijing on Monday, is itself likely to raise questions over China's commitment to tackling debris that experts say poses an increasing threat to satellites and spacecraft.
China National Space Administration, which handles external relations for Beijing's space programme, did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The meeting’s schedule was still on the CNSA website on Thursday, but the hotel where it was to be held and other people familiar with the situation confirmed that it had been cancelled.
The postponement could seriously affect the work of the IADC, a global forum for exchanges of debris research by space agencies that also aims to find ways to reduce the damage caused by orbital waste.
However, representatives to the IADC are understood to be reluctant to anger Beijing by rejecting its plan. “China has just become a very dangerous producer of debris, so it's important to maintain China within this group,” said one participant.