Space's newest frontier is close to home
Reports that Switzerland is developing a system for clearing up its own space junk should inspire China to seize an opportunity for its own beloved space programme. The Swiss have only two satellites in orbit, but they are investigating ways to bring them back to earth. In this regard they are behaving like those admirable people who clean up after taking the dog for a walk, no matter how small the deposit.
In January 2007, China was credited with a great achievement when it destroyed one of its own satellites. In one almighty instant, a collision 800 kilometres above Sichuan created a 3,200km-long, potentially lethal cloud of debris that is now orbiting the earth at more than 27,000km/h.
The results of the test were first reported in the Western media, and Chinese scientists approached for comment were reluctant to speak about it, perhaps signalling discomfort over what was, in effect, an act of pollution. However, as Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference more than three months after the test, 'it had not posed a threat to anyone, nor did it violate the relevant international treaties.'
Besides, Wen might have added, the US and Russia have been destroying their satellites in orbit for years, and continue to do so. China has merely caught up with them in yet another, far-flung field of military endeavour.
Given China's ability to make things quicker, faster and more cheaply than the West, it may want to study closely the plan of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to develop a space-based 'vacuum cleaner'. The Swiss reckon their version of an orbital barf bag will cost US$11 million, so China should be able to get something up and running by the end of the year for half that.
Landing a man on the moon would be wonderful, but beating the Swiss and Americans to the moral high ground in space would be far nobler, and proof of the peacefulness of China's continuing rise.