Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Strangling Like A Python, China Says Its Powerful ‘Robotic Snake’ Can Crush Enemy Satellites Like Never Before

Some of China’s claims about its space and defense technologies sound very unreal but may not really be impossible to implement. China’s newest claim pertains to a space robot that could have underlying disruptive capabilities. 

A Chinese research team has built a giant robotic snake with unrivaled strength, flexibility, and lifespan to explore space.

The 1.5-meter (5-foot) long robot, which would be attached to a spacecraft, is said to be made up of nine segments, each of which can generate 190 Newton-meters of torque, about double that of a 1,200cc Harley-Davidson Iron motorbike.

The researchers claim the joints between segments can twist and spin a lot, allowing the robot to snake through a complex environment to reach a tight area of a space station or satellite that is inaccessible to astronauts or robotic arms.

Last month, a Chinese-designed robotic arm demonstrated its capability of grasping and moving a cargo spacecraft in a 47-minute maneuver last month, sparking fears in the US that it could be used to destroy space assets of China’s rivals.

An artist’s impression of the robotic snake, designed to work in orbit for a wide range of tasks such as cargo transport, assembly, repairs and inspection. Photo: Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Artist’s impression of the robotic snake (Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The new snake robot goes one step ahead as the researchers claim it has the ability to reach inaccessible areas by eliminating the barriers of a complex space environment.

The snake robot which is a 9 segment amalgamation also has an unlimited lifespan in the way that a broken or dysfunctional piece of the robot can be removed and replaced with a new one, allowing it to operate indefinitely. However, as of now, this precedent only exists in theory.

“Making repairs in a complex space environment costs a great deal of human and material resources. The modular hyper-redundant manipulator is an effective solution to this problem,” according to an article published in the local peer-reviewed journal Robot last month by a team lead by Professor Xu Zhenbang of Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics, and Physics.

According to Xu and his colleagues, the robots might also act together as tentacles to move or handle a large object.

Tiangong_Space_Station-China
File Image: Tiangong Space Station -China

A Beijing-based space expert went so far as to say that the robot is powerful enough to crush a small satellite in the same way as “a python strangles its prey.”

This new robot lends credence to the concerns about China installing technology in space that would allow it to carry out space warfare against adversaries in case of a conflict on earth.

Interestingly, it comes shortly after its satellite Shijian-21 stunned the world by grabbing and moving a dead BeiDou asset from its orbital path.

‘Chinese Snake’ In Space

Snake-like robots are already employed to monitor undersea cables and do other jobs, but there are no reports of their employment in space due to engineering challenges.

Each segment of such a machine, for example, is theoretically an autonomous robot, complete with motors, transmission, processor, and high-precision sensors. It was difficult, according to the researchers, to compress the components into a small space and protect them with many layers of protection, stated SCMP.

Another difficulty was creating a joint that was both strong and flexible. Xu’s team came up with a novel design that could increase an electric motor’s torque by more than 3,000 times.

China-snake-robot
Artist’s impression shows how the robotic arm might work

According to the researchers, each section is required to communicate with other segments, share power, and coordinate every movement in order to fulfill a task, which necessitated the use of cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

The snake robot had been put through its paces on the ground, including exploring new territory, said Xu’s team. To avoid colliding with objects while moving forward, the robot had to locate gaps, enter a tight space, and quickly change its body segments.

The robot was also able to securely create letters on a blackboard with chalk or nudge a celebration balloon, according to the researchers.

Xu stated that the robot would be improved more before it was launched into orbit. Some metallic alloy components, for example, would be updated to carbon fiber to save weight.

The machine has used some electric motors from Switzerland, microprocessors from Texas Instruments in the US, and gearboxes from Japan. The researchers did not disclose whether these parts will be changed, but Chinese space officials typically demand that crucial components be manufactured in China to eliminate security and sanction concerns.

This is also indicative of the fact that the said technology is in a very preliminary phase and it could be years before it is finally launched into space.

One scientist believes that exposing the machine in a publicly available publication indicated that China had no plans to deploy it as a weapon. He went on to say that the same technology utilized in military applications could have vastly different designs and specifications.

However, these assurances would not suffice for the adversaries of China that have grown wary of its space ambitions and technologies, often presented as a harmless space asset but with underlying offensive capabilities.

China Gearing Up For Space Warfare?

Apprehension has been raised that China could employ these space technologies to deactivate satellites from rival countries. The US military has raised alarm about China’s anti-satellite capabilities, particularly with regard to Shijian 17, an experimental probe with a robotic arm that performed strange maneuvers after its flight in 2016.

The January Tiangong Space Station robotic arm maneuver further exacerbated this concern even though the International Space Station (ISS) has had its own robotic arms for decades. The US fears that China could use these robotic arms to destroy its satellites and other space assets.

US Space Command Commander James Dickinson had earlier said the technique “could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites” at a Congressional hearing.

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Tiangong Robotic Arm (via Twitter)

However, Beijing has maintained that its space robotic technology was created for peaceful purposes, such as creating large-scale infrastructure, serving spacecraft or satellites in orbit, and eliminating space debris.

In fact, smaller versions of Tiangong’s robotic arm have been deployed on China’s “scavenger satellites”, which gather and direct space junk to burn up in the atmosphere. Over the previous decade, China has launched a number of scavenger satellites, as previously stated by EurAsian Times.

The fears, however, aren’t new and have lingered for a while. In 2020, a Pentagon report had highlighted that China continued the development and acquisition of offensive space technologies designed to restrict/destroy the enemy’s space-based assets.

As the great power competition between China and the West transcends to outer space, China could be expected to develop and launch more such assets with an objective to challenge what is seen as the Western hegemony.

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