July 29, 2016 – 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 on schedule to launch second space station this year after recovery of probe.
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“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.