China's debris-cleaning spacecraft 'could be used by military'

BEIJING • A robotic cleaner sent into orbit by China to pick up space junk has sparked suspicion among sceptics that the craft could be put to military use.

The Aolong-1, equipped with a robotic arm to remove large debris, was carried into space by the Long March 7 rocket from the Wenchang space launch centre in the southern Chinese province of Hainan last Saturday.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation's (CASC) senior satellite scientist Tang Yagang said the Aolong-1 was the first in a series of spacecraft to be tasked with getting rid of man-made space debris, such as defunct satellites, by bringing it back to earth and crashing it safely into the ocean, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported yesterday. The CASC is the main contractor for the Chinese space programme.

"China, as a responsible big country, has committed to the control and reduction of space debris," Mr Tang said on the China National Space Administration website.

But analysts are questioning China's motives.

"It is unrealistic to remove all space debris with robots. There are hundreds of millions of pieces drifting out there," a researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing was quoted as saying by the SCMP but was not named in the report.

In times of war, the Aolong-1, which could be mass-produced because of its small size, could be deployed by the military as a deterrent or as a weapon against enemy assets in space, the researcher said.

The development of the technology was backed by the military and kept confidential, said a mainland space engineering scientist.

Calling it a "bold experiment" with a high chance of failure, the scientist said one of the challenges the robot faced was getting a firm grip on the debris, which involved analysing the fast, irregular patterns of tumbling targets to guide its arm.

The European Space Agency is planning to launch a similar project called e.deorbit in 2023 to burn space debris in a controlled atmospheric re-entry. The mission is expected to be approved later this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'China's debris-cleaning spacecraft 'could be used by military''. Print Edition | Subscribe