The core module of China's upcoming Tiangong space station has a powerful robot arm attached, and US military leadership is sounding the alarm that it could be used to tamper with other spacecraft.
James Dickinson, the commander of the US Space Command, warned Congress last month that robot arms like it, such as the one attached to the Chinese spacecraft Shijian-17, could have nefarious purposes like attacking satellites, according to the South China Morning Post.
"One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm," Dickinson recently told Congress, adding that such arms could be "could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites."
Chinese officials told the SCMP that the US military was unfairly criticizing what's become a fairly common space technology. After all, the International Space Station has a robot arm as well, which can extend up to 17 meters and has been used for construction and repairs — not combat — for years, and NASA first launched a spacecraft with a robotic arm in the 1990s.
Chinese officials say that the robot arm on the new space station will be used to grab onto approaching spacecraft to help them dock, and that other spacecraft with robotic arms are designed to target and remove dangerous junk that's orbiting the Earth.
"If China makes a breakthrough in debris removal, it will be welcomed internationally," Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping told the SCMP.
READ MORE: China space station’s giant robotic arm sparks concerns in US [South China Morning Post]
More on orbital combat: US Intel Chief: Chinese Space Station Is a Threat to National Security