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Long March-5 rocket takes off from Wenchang

Robot prototype sent into orbit to catch and grill space debris

Image credit: Reuters/Stringer

A Chinese space mining start-up has launched a prototype robotic platform (NEO-01) into low Earth orbit to experiment with a space debris removal technique, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

The 30kg NEO-01 robot was launched on the Chinese government’s Long March 6 rocket, Xinhua said. It will be used to observe small celestial bodies in deep space and to experiment with a novel approach to clearing up space debris. This will involve using a large net to capture debris, then burning it using its electric propulsion system.

Approximately 3,000 defunct satellites remain in orbit around Earth, along with millions of smaller pieces of space debris, which can still cause severe damage upon impact due to the velocity at which they orbit. The debris ranges from paint flecks, nuts, bolts and frozen satellite coolant to astronaut tools and rocket parts.

There has been considerable discussion by space agencies, lawmakers and private companies about how to tackle the problem of space debris, ranging from policy suggestions (such as the introduction of orbital-use fees) to high-tech active space clean-ups (using satellites armed with claws, nets, magnets and other devices).

The NEO-01 robot was developed by Shenzhen-based Origin Space, which describes itself as China’s first company dedicated to exploring and utilising space resources; it hopes that NEO-01 will pave the way for new technologies capable of asteroid mining. Su Meng, the company’s founder, told state media that Origin Space aims to launch dozens of space telescopes and other spacecraft to achieve the first commercial asteroid mining operation by 2045.

Since the establishment of the world’s first asteroid mining company, US-based Planetary Resources, in 2019, more than a dozen companies have been established with similar goals. Planetary Resources has since encountered financial difficulties and been acquired by blockchain company ConsenSys.

Although under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body, this does not forbid extracting resources from space for commercial exploitation. In 2015, US President Barack Obama signed a law allowing US companies the right to any resources they mine on celestial bodies.

Last year, Nasa announced a lunar mining initiative, through which it will offer to buy lunar regolith (the rock and dirt covering the rocky surface) extracted by private companies. Nasa hopes that this will help establish international standards for norms of commercial behaviour in space, which could be comparable to standards for such behaviour in Earth’s oceans. This could eventually allow astronauts to “live off the land”, such as by using ice to create rocket fuel or Moon rock to construct landing pads and other structures.

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