Chinese Space Trash Collector Feared To Be Newest Anti-Satellite Weapon

China launched a small robot designed to collect space trash Saturday, but some analysts are worried it could be used as a weapon to destroy American military satellites.

The Aolong-1, or Roaming Dragon, sports a robotic arm designed to capture floating space debris, but it could just as easily be used to destroy working satellites.

China’s space trash collector could be used to collect dead satellites and stop them from crashing into large cities on the ground, like the defunct Heavenly Palace space lab scheduled to fall from orbit next year, according to the China National Space Administration website.

“China, as a responsible big country, has committed to the control and reduction of space debris. In order to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities, our country is [working endlessly towards] achieving a technological breakthrough in space debris removal technology.”

The Roaming Dragon is designed to capture this space debris, crush it, melt it into plasma with extreme heat, and then use it for fuel to hunt down more space trash. The prototype craft is very small, so China could easily produce more if its performs well.

The problem with the Chinese space garbage collector is that could potentially be used to disable and destroy working satellites, especially military ones, and that has some analysts worried, according to the South China Morning Post.

“It is unrealistic to remove all space debris with robots. There are hundreds of millions of pieces drifting out there.”

The Roaming Dragon could potentially use its robotic arm to attach itself to another satellite, spacecraft, or a space station like a barnacle. Once attached, the robot could attack the other craft or be used as a mine.

This isn’t the first time China has worked to destroy space satellites; in 2007, the country blew up a dead weather probe with an anti-satellite missile. The test angered the international community because of the large volume of space trash it created.

This time, China hopes to avoid the international fallout with the use of its “clean” space trash collector. The launch of the Roaming Dragon is the latest step in a Chinese project to remove the millions of pieces of space trash orbiting the Earth.

The national agency was established last year with the mission of tracking the millions of pieces of space trash left in orbit above the planet in order to protect working satellites and space stations.

NASA estimates there at least 20,000 pieces of space trash larger than a softball above the Earth, including pieces of broken satellites, abandoned parts, and used launch vehicles. The small pieces of metal are travelling at about 7,800 meters per second and could easily damage passing satellites and space stations.

China has some 129 vehicles in orbit, and about 30 times a year, they’re threatened by space trash that comes to close for comfort.

The European Space Agency is also working on a space trash collector it expects to launch next year. The U.S. Air Force is working on its own project; the craft would not only be able to collect space trash, but also work to repair broken satellites.

China has made huge leaps with its burgeoning space program. After the success of the Heavenly Palace space lab, the country plans to launch its own space station into orbit to be followed by its own Hubble Telescope.

China has clear intentions of landing on the moon and establishing a colony to mine for valuable resources. They also just signed a space treaty with Russia to assert their interstellar rights and challenge U.S. supremacy in space.

Do you think the Roaming Dragon is a space trash collector or satellite weapon?

[Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images]