If China has tested a new orbital weapon, it’s not much of a surprise

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The report that emerged this weekend Sounded alarming: China, a rising military power, unexpectedly fired a new space weapon two months ago. It circled the planet and then re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, hovering at speeds much faster than the speed of sound towards a destination in Chinese territory.

As a military capability, bombarding a target from orbit in this manner could overcome existing missile defenses. But many experts have expressed doubts about the report.

“There is nothing that we know from reliable sources,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer which tracks global space launches. The U.S. military unit reporting the orbital events has not released any information about a launch by China in August that matches the reported claim about a weapons test, McDowell said.

“Every aspect of this story has question marks,” he added.

Has China Really Tested and Developed a Surprise Space Weapon? Here are some of the known military and technical points about the system, as well as some of the answers and uncertainties regarding the flight test.

What was reported on the China flight test?

Saturday’s Financial Times reported that China in August had tested in flight a hypersonic missile with nuclear capacity which circled the globe before heading towards its target. The newspaper, giving one of the few details on the test, said the weapon missed its target by about two dozen kilometers.

The report relied on a variety of anonymous sources, including one who said the weapon test took US intelligence by surprise. “We have no idea how they did this,” the newspaper said, citing an anonymous source.

Did China admit performing the test?

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry said there was a flight test of a reusable spacecraft, not a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. TO a regular press briefingChinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called it a routine test.

“There are a lot of companies around the world that have done similar tests,” he said.

Previously, Zhao had been criticized by Western experts on China for making unsubstantiated claims and exposing conspiracy theories.

China initially gave August as the test date, but later said the vehicle was tested in July, according to Bloomberg News. Last year in September, the state-owned company that oversees China’s space industry announced a test of an experimental reusable spacecraft that performed a flight in low earth orbit.

Is it true that this test launch was a surprise?

Probably not. The eye-catching part of the story – that China’s weapon circled the globe before rushing towards its target – is an old trick. The technology was pioneer in the 1960s by the Soviet Union. Then it was known as the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, or FOBS. It is so named because it never reaches a complete orbit of the Earth but only a fraction.

David wright, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist who has long studied space developments, said some descriptions of the test launch were alarmist.

“Any country that can put something in space could do it,” he said. “And we should certainly not be surprised that China can do this given the sophistication of its space program.”

Some experts see China as a challenge to US dominance in space exploration. In the past year alone, the country returned soil samples from the Moon, landed a rover on Mars and launched two crews of astronauts to the country’s new space station.

The nation is also digging hundreds of new silos for long-range nuclear missiles, building an arsenal of anti-satellite weapons, and firing regularly. more rockets in space Than any other country.

How did the Biden administration react?

The Pentagon has spoken of China’s military progress in general but has not discussed the claimed test. “We will not comment on the details of these reports,” John F. Kirby, chief defense spokesperson, said in a statement. “We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that China continues to pursue – capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond.”

A senior US official, who spoke anonymously to describe the assessments of confidential information, said there was some skepticism about how the Financial Times had portrayed the Chinese test. This is not the case that a flight test did not take place, the official said, but rather the reliability of the log description.

State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed the Pentagon with no details, but in his daily briefing Monday he said: “We are deeply concerned” about the expansion China’s rapid nuclear capabilities, “including its development of new delivery systems.”

Eric Schmitt and Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.


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