Is China militarising space? Experts say new junk collector could be used as anti-satellite weapon
Craft could be used to attack satellites, according to some researchers
A small spacecraft sent into orbit by the Long March 7 rocket launched from Hainan in southern China on Saturday is tasked with cleaning up space junk, according to the government, but some analysts claim it may serve a military purpose.
The Aolong-1, or Roaming Dragon, is equipped with a robotic arm to remove large debris such as old satellites.
Tang Yagang, a senior satellite scientist with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, said the Aolong-1 was the first in a series of craft that would be tasked with collecting man-made debris in space.
For instance, it could collect a defunct Chinese satellite and bring it back to earth, crashing it safely into the ocean, he said.
“China, as a responsible big country, has committed to the control and reduction of space debris. In order to fulfil the obligations and responsibilities, our country is [working endlessly towards] achieving a technological breakthrough in space debris removal technology,” Tang says on the website of the China National Space Administration.
But the question is: did China develop the cutting-edge technology only to clean up space junk?
“It is unrealistic to remove all space debris with robots. There are hundreds of millions of pieces drifting out there,” said a researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing.
To the military, the robot had potential as an anti-satellite weapon, the researcher said.
The Roaming Dragon is small, weighing only a few hundred kilos, so the prototype could be produced and launched in large numbers.
During peacetime, the craft could patrol space and prevent defunct satellites from crashing into big cities such as Shanghai or New York.
During wartime, they could be used as deterrents or directly against enemy assets in space, said the researcher.
It was also a “clean” anti-satellite weapon, the researcher said. In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite test which blew up a dead weather probe with a missile. The test prompted an international outcry because the explosion generated such a large volume of debris.
“This time no one will point a finger [at China],” the researcher said.
Another mainland space engineering scientist said the role of the craft to pick up space debris was a “bold experiment” with a high chance of failure.
“It looks simple, but some enormous challenges lie ahead, some that no other nation has solved,” said the expert.
The development of the technology was mainly supported by the military, and kept confidential, he said.
The first challenge in such missions was to get close to a “non-cooperative target”, the scientist said.
But China had conducted numerous such rendezvous flights, he said. During the docking of the Shenzhou manned spacecraft to the Tiangong space laboratory, for instance, the two vehicles constantly exchanged information.
The Aolong-1, by contrast, would be trying to rendezvous with a piece of cold, unresponsive debris. It would need to search for and identify the target, then plan and adjust its own course of approach.
Another challenge involves reaching out to any debris with Aolong’s robotic arm.
To get a firm grip, the arm must aim for a specific target area – something that in space is likely to be constantly changing.
Sensors and computers on Aolong will have to analyse the fast, irregular patterns of the tumbling target to guide its arm.
Such challenges would test China’s technology to the limit, said the expert.
China is not the only country developing the technology. The European Space Agency is expected to approve a similar project called e.deorbit later this year.
The ESA was considering two different ways to capture the debris: one using a net and the other a robot arm. With a projected launch in 2023, the e.deorbit robot would “target a European derelict satellite in low orbit, capture it, then safely burn it up in a controlled atmospheric reentry,” the ESA says on its website.
The ESA also claims the e.deorbit would be “the world’s first active debris removal mission”, though that is no longer true given the launch of Aolong-1.
The United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) plans to launch a larger, more sophisticated craft for the US Air Force in 2020. The Phoenix in-orbit servicing programme had been scheduled for launch last year, but was delayed by technical and cost concerns.
Unlike the Aolong and e.deorbit, the Phoenix would also be able to carry out jobs such as repairing, upgrading and refuelling ageing satellites.
It would even be able to “turn foreign satellites into US spy satellites”, according to the US air force.
Chinese researchers with the 502 Institute at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said last year that China would launch a multi-tasking space robot similar to the Phoenix, also by about 2020.
The China National Space Administration says the nation’s blueprint for its space robots spans missions ranging from low earth orbit to Mars.