A Chinese startup company called Origin Space has launched a prototype robot designed to collect space debris and eventually mine asteroids while in low-Earth orbit.
The Neo-01 robot was launched on the Chinese state-backed rocket Long March recently, and weighs about 30 kg. The system will use a net to catch debris.
Satellites of all kinds – military and civilian – have been launched in their thousands in the past few decades. And when these become obsolete, they just end up floating in space, accounting for a large portion of the debris floating around in space above Earth’s atmosphere.
According to some estimates, approximately 3,000 satellites and millions of small pieces of related debris are currently in space with no feasible way of recovering, recycling or disposing of them in a clean way.
Research is under way at many companies and space agencies around the world to develop systems for dealing with this space debris, but Origin Space appears to be one of the first to have launched a prototype solution.
Last year, Nasa launched a lunar mining solution with similar objectives.
The prospect of using future versions of the Neo-01 as asteroid mining is also attractive, since rare earth minerals mining on Earth is a dirty, dangerous and expensive process.
According to the IET, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty means that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.
However, 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.
A new space race appears to be developing, with this one being more about money than anything else.