China has launched a military satellite into orbit. Its role: destroy space junk. China’s newest satellite will join roughly 5 000 currently in orbit. Of these man-made structures circling the globe, only around 1 950 remain operational.
The vast majority of orbiting objects are junk, either decommissioned satellites or satellites that have encountered debris, breaking into pieces and further cluttering an already cramped environment.
Named Shijian-21, the craft was propelled into space via a Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in late October, according to Space News.
In a statement issued to national media, China Aerospace and Technology Corp (CASC) said the launch mission was a success, confirming Shijian-21 had entered into a geosynchronous orbit without any issues.
Shijian-21 would “test and verify” space junk mitigation strategies said CASC, without getting into mission details. It also remained tight-lipped about the specifications of the craft but did say it had both civilian and military applications.
In March 2021, a Russian spy satellite collided with Yunhai 1-02, a Chinese-built military satellite, in orbit since 2019. The aftermath of the event was first observed by the United States Space Force.
At the time, the origin of the impact event was unknown but Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Cambridge Center for Astrophysics, revealed that the likely culprit was Object 48078, a small 10-50 centimetre piece of space junk.
Object 48078 was originally attached to a Zenit 2 rocket, which launched the Tselina-2 spy satellite into orbit in 1996. The impact with Yunhai resulted in 37 new pieces of debris but remarkably, it escaped the encounter with no significant damage, according to Space.com
What researchers are concerned about is an event called Kessler Syndrome, where a series of consecutive debris collisions may make exiting geosynchronous orbit nearly impossible.
Calls for debris removal, satellite repairs and refuelling, and moving junk into designated “graveyards”, away from existing and operational satellites, are being made globally.
During this year’s Zhuhai Airshow, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology unveiled a “supplemental service craft” whose function it is to dock with and refuel satellites.
Similar projects are underway in the European Union, while private companies like Astroscale in Japan and SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of American aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, are also exploring ways to develop spacecraft with refuelling capabilities.