China launches robot prototype capable of catching space debris with net

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FILE PHOTO: China marks its Space Day

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese space mining start-up launched into low Earth orbit on Tuesday a robot prototype that can scoop up debris left behind by other spacecraft with a big net.

The NEO-01, which will also peer into deep space to observe small celestial bodies, was launched on the government's Long March 6 rocket along with a handful of satellites, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The 30kg robot developed by Shenzhen-based Origin Space will pave the way for future technologies capable of mining on asteroids, according to the company.

Since the establishment of the world's first asteroid mining company Planetary Resources in 2009, more than a dozen firms across the world have entered the fledging sector, including 3D Systems of the United States and Japan's Astroscale.

Unlike Astroscale's technology, which uses magnets to gather up space junk, NEO-01 will use a net to capture debris and then burn it with its electric propulsion system, according to a report on the company's website.

Thousands of satellites have been launched globally. As they outlive their use, many end up as junk, posing danger to other operating satellites.

Origin Space plans to launch dozens of space telescopes and more spacecraft to achieve the first commercial mining of asteroids by 2045, said the company's founder Su Meng in an interview with domestic media on April 6.

Xinhua reported on Saturday that China was stepping up efforts to land a probe on a near-Earth asteroid to collect samples, and also expediting a plan to build a defence system against near-Earth asteroids.

Beijing has grand space ambitions, aiming to catch up with Russia and the United States and transform China into a major space power by 2030.

(Reporting by Liangping Gao and Ryan Woo; Editing by Peter Graff)