China has test-flown a robotic space plane similar to the U.S. Air Force’s secretive — and highly potent — X-37B.
Or not. It’s hard to tell. And it seems unlikely.
In April last year, the Americans launched into orbit the very first Boeing-built X-37B, a quarter-size robotic version of the 30-year-old manned Space Shuttle. According to the Air Force, the X-37B is just a flying laboratory with a nine-month endurance, designed to test out new space technologies. But the maneuverable, solar- and battery-powered, self-landing ‘bot is capable of so much more.
It could be a super-high-altitude spy drone. It could place small satellites into orbit quickly and cheaply. It could sneak up on, and disable, enemy satellites. It could even drop bombs from space, though that’s probably the last thing the Pentagon would ever try. (It would be politically equivalent to dropping an atom bomb.)
The Chinese objected when the X-37B made its debut. And now, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has its own version — this according to a single obscure English-language Website, citing a Chinese Website that got quickly scrubbed by government censors, which itself quoted a newspaper quoting a TV broadcast. Whew!
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily on Tuesday said Shaanxi TV last Saturday quoted acting provincial governor Zhao Zhengyong as saying China has “succeeded in the test flight of a prototype aircraft that can fly through the atmospheric layer.” Zhao was visiting a state-run aircraft corporation at Xi’an high-tech industrial development zone.
Chinese officials say that their rocket-powered space plane program may be a reaction to U.S. ambitions to dominate space and develop space planes, hypersonic transports and bombers.
I have my doubts, and here’s why. Firstly, you can hide low-flying fighter prototypes fairly well, but when you start shooting stuff into the upper atmosphere, never mind space, people in other countries start noticing. And so far, the U.S. defense establishment — so recently embarrassed by the sudden appearance of Beijing’s new J-20 fighter — has said nothing.
Also, a working robotic space plane similar to the X-37B requires highly advanced materials and communications that China has never proved capable of mastering. Moreover, using such a space plane to its full potential as an offensive weapon demands a high degree of space awareness — that is, knowing where everybody’s satellites are and what they’re doing. There’s just one country with anything approaching reliable space awareness, and that’s the United States.