China-US space race hurtles into the outer limits

‘Satellite killers’ and ‘spaceplanes’ illustrate the growing threats that are out of this world

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Contrary to conspiracy theorists and sci-fi-movie and TV buffs, there have been no actual acts of war committed in space. At least, not that we know of.

International treaties attempt to regulate conflicts and limit space weapon systems, especially nuclear ones, but that hasn’t stopped a number of tests.

Russia, for example, inexplicably shot down a satellite, an old, expendable piece of technology. Just a few weeks later, the United States started testing the durability of satellites against growing threats from Moscow and Beijing, Reuters news agency reported.

The computer simulations included the potential shooting down of US missile-tracking satellites and the “effects” of electronic warfare. The “Space Flag” training exercise involved partners from Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

“It happens in rooms like [this] … people at a relatively junior level in many cases. Collaborating and thinking through challenges and trying to figure out concepts that seem to make sense and discarding ideas that go astray,” US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said at the Space Force Base in Colorado as reported by Reuters.

War game

The 10-day war game involved an adversarial group working to simulate an aggressor nation with space capabilities such as China and Russia.

Before the games began, Russia’s anti-satellite program purposefully shattered the country’s Cosmos 1408 satellite, launched in 1982, the Daily Mail reported last month. According to experts, the space debris, which included “some 1,500 pieces of trackable size,” will cause havoc for spacecraft for years to come.

But there are other “threats.”

China has also launched a suspected “satellite killer” in the Shijian-21. Analysts believe it can be used as a weapon capable of grabbing and crushing satellites. In response, Beijing said it is tasked with demonstrating technologies to neutralize space debris – a noble effort, if true.

“The threats are really growing and expanding every single day. And it’s really an evolution of activity that’s been happening for a long time. We’re really at a point now where there’s a whole host of ways that our space systems can be threatened,” Space Force General David Thompson told the Washington Post.

China reportedly launched a hypersonic mission. Image: China Manned Space Engineering Office.

On the heels of these developments, the sudden trajectory of “Space War” capability testing, is no accident. Pentagon leaders and the White House were allegedly aghast after China somehow managed the first successful suborbital hypersonic mission.

Known as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, that same glide body also launched another projectile – a feat which some scientists said was impossible. It then went on to traverse the globe in an orbital-like fashion as it raced towards its target.

While the world reacted to the so-called “Sputnik moment,” Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried a head-fake of sorts, issuing a statement that actually referred to the July test of a reusable spaceplane. The flight was labeled a “routine” mission.

A statement from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) said that it had launched the spaceplane from the Jiuquan Satellite Center in Inner Mongolia, The Drive website reported.

Cloaked in secrecy

“The development of reusable space transportation technology is an important symbol of China’s transition from a ‘big’ space-faring nation to a ‘powerful’ space-faring one,” the CASC trumpeted, adding that the vehicle subsequently landed “horizontally” at Alxa Right Banner Badanjilin Airport in Inner Mongolia.

Apart from the CASC statement, the mission was cloaked in secrecy.

Still, speculation aside, advancements in spaceplane tech are areas of immense economic and national security significance, the Defense One website reported. A key advantage is that spaceplanes can be reused, cutting costs.

They also have superior maneuverability, allowing them to perform a wider variety of missions, and are suited for space tourism and point-to-point transportation.

These days, spaceplanes are launched either vertically on a rocket such as the Space Shuttle and its successor, Boeing’s X-37B, or horizontally from a carrier plane. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo uses that technique. They can also land on a standard runway.

X-37B spaceplane inside the nose cone of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Image: US Air Force

The US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B has flown four clandestine missions to date, carrying secret payloads on long-duration flights in Earth orbit. Information is classified.

Also waiting in the wings, and soon to be test-flown, is Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser.” Described as “an SUV for space” or “Space Utility Vehicle,” it is a multi-mission craft designed to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond.

Dream Chaser will carry critical supplies like food, water and science experiments to the ISS, returning with a runway landing. On the other side of the Pacific, China’s most high-profile spaceplane is the CASIC Tengyun concept, an advanced, backpack-style, two-stage vehicle.

Talking about science fiction, this concept is nothing short of breathtaking.

Tengyun’s “parent” aircraft is a large hypersonic drone with a mode-shifting Turbo-Rocket Combined Engine, while the second-stage orbiter mounted on top is powered by a liquid-fueled rocket engine.

Hypersonic airliner

According to the Daily Mail, as a hypersonic airliner, it could transport passengers or cargo to anywhere in the world at 12,000 mph, or greater than Mach 5, in less than an hour. Originally inspired by the Boeing Manta X-47C project that was shelved due to rising costs, China hopes to eventually build a fleet of these jets by 2045.

Ming Han Tang, a former engineer in the NASA hypersonic program, designed the Two-Stage Vehicle X-plane technology.

In a paper published in the Journal of Propulsion Technology, the team said that while the prototype may not reach production, “understanding its work mechanism can provide important guidance to hypersonic plane and engine development.” 

As for China, it has been reported that CASC has successfully tested a model of the Tengyun reusable transport space system in a wind tunnel. A planned first flight is slated for 2035.