Blast off in the China-US hypersonic space race
Beijing’s out-of-this-world plans leave Washington scrambling in the battle for the outer limits
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …”
US President John F. Kennedy, Houston Space Center, September 12, 1962
Those very words, from JFK, would propel the United States into the lead in space exploration, and beyond.
It was a bold and visionary step, and one that had to be won – the Cold War was afoot, and finishing last was just not an option.
It culminated in putting men on the Moon, not once, but six times – an incredible feat of science. It also cost US$25.8 billion.
That was then, this is now.
Last month, China came up with a “Sputnik moment” when it emerged it had launched a hypersonic missile around the globe, shocking US military officials. Now, it has been revealed the weapon was far more advanced than originally thought, The Sun newspaper in the United Kingdom reported.
The hypersonic glide vehicle, a maneuverable spacecraft that can carry a nuclear warhead, fired a separate missile during its flight in the atmosphere over the South China Sea on July 27, according to a Financial Times media report.
Experts at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are said to be unsure how China achieved the feat, as scientists say it “tests the constraints of physics,” according to The Sun report.
Military experts have been poring over the data to discover how it was achieved. They are also said to be discussing what the projectile might be for.
It was fired by the hypersonic vehicle but seems to have had no obvious target before it plunged into the water, The Sun report stated.
That news came in the wake of a report by the National Defense that China has already surpassed the US in hypersonics technology, and is now rapidly catching up in space capabilities.
According to US General David Thompson, the vice-chief of space operations, if China’s technology development continues on its current trajectory, it is “likely to exceed us in terms of our capability,” he told a crowd of military types at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada.
China appears able to cycle through new space technology at twice the pace of the US, meaning it can take an idea, develop it, then field it faster, he said in a talk at the forum.
Meanwhile, the US military’s acquisition system is slowed down by bureaucracy, he added.
“I would argue that we – both the US and our close partners – are still the best in the world in that technology. But they [the Chinese] have come very close very quickly,” Thompson said.
Along with its own version of GPS, China has sophisticated communications spacecraft and some 200 spy satellites in orbit, National Defense reported.
“They intend to use space the way they have watched us use it for decades, in addition to building a whole suite of counter-space weapons to deny us,” Thompson said.
“They have come a long way very quickly. They are close to being [our] equal and if they continue at their pace, they could surpass us in the next several generations,” he added.
Chief of the US Space Force General John Raymond warned that security in space will fall under a “full spectrum of threats” from Beijing that will call for substantial international cooperation, according to an initial report from Nikkei Asia.
Raymond declared that China is building “everything from reversible jammers of our GPS system – which provides navigation and timing with precision […] to jamming of communications satellites,” according to the Nikkei report.
“They’ve got missiles they can launch from the ground and destroy satellites. I’m convinced that these capabilities that they’re developing would be utilized by them in their efforts in any potential conflict,” he said.
As for US shortcomings, Thompson said part of the problem is the “bureaucracy that we’ve built into our defense and acquisition enterprise, not just in space, but in other areas, and that has slowed us down in many areas.”
“We’ve really adopted an extreme risk-averse posture in terms of development and fielding these things because they’re so incredibly expensive and claim so much of the national treasure. We talk about satellites in terms of hundreds of millions [of dollars] and $1 billion. We’ve been very careful to make sure that we deliver effectively,” he said.
“We need to accelerate cycle times. We need to create a different sort of approach to acquiring, building and operating these systems … [We] probably need to again be in a position where we’re ready to accept a little more risk – a little more risk of failure – so that we can speed up our processes,” Thompson added.
Still, some Pentagon experts believe the hypersonic projectile was an air-to-air missile. Others think it was a countermeasure to destroy missile defense systems so that they cannot shoot down hypersonic weapons, The Sun reported.
“This development is concerning to us as it should be to all who seek peace and stability in the region and beyond,” a spokesperson for the US National Security Council (NSC) told the media group.
“This also builds on our concern about many military capabilities that the People’s Republic of China continues to pursue,” the spokesperson added.
The hypersonic glide vehicle was launched into space via an “orbital bombardment system” rocket which can fly over the South Pole, effectively putting it out of reach of US missile defense systems.
In another spectacular advance, China is building a specially designed ship for launching rockets into space from the sea, Space.com reported.
The 533 feet (162.5 meters) long, 131 feet (40 meters) wide “new-type rocket launching vessel” is being constructed for the new China Oriental Spaceport at Haiyang, Shandong province on the Eastern coast. The new ship is expected to enter service in 2022.
It will feature integrated launch support equipment. It will also be capable of facilitating launches of the Long March 11, or “Smart Dragon” rockets, as well as liquid propellant projectiles, according to the social media channel for the spaceport.
The vessel could also be used to recover the ‘first stages,’ possibly in the same way as SpaceX’s autonomous drone ships provide a landing platform for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket first stages.
A mobile sea platform also allows launches closer to the equator. The greater rotational speed of the Earth near the equator means lower fuel requirements to achieve orbit, Space.com reported.
According to SpaceNews.com, Chinese boots on the Moon will be “entirely possible” by 2030, Ye Peijian, a senior Chinese lunar program designer and engineer, said.
“I personally think that, as long as technological research for crewed Moon landings continues, as long as the country is determined, a Chinese landing is entirely possible by 2030,” he told the state-run CCTV network.
Ye, who studied for a doctoral degree in Switzerland, was the commander of the early Chang’e lunar orbiter missions. He also advocated a Mars program in the early 2010s and is now studying the feasibility of a crewed lunar landing timeline.
In addition, China is also assembling its own Tiangong space station just like the international one, The Daily Express in the UK reported.
The main section was put in orbit back in April, while a crew was there for 90 days earlier this year. It is currently floating 236 miles above the Earth. This has enabled the country to plan another 11 missions in the next 18 months to finish off the building process.
Sources: The Sun, Financial Times, National Defense, Space.com, SpaceNews.com, CCTV, Daily Express, Nikkei Asia