Space plane can 'help launch space weapons, be used for anti-satellite purposes'
BEIJING - The latest spacecraft launched by the United States has triggered concerns over a new arms race in space that could jeopardize world peace, Chinese military researchers said on Friday.
The US Air Force launched unmanned spacecraft X-37B with a rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday evening local time, media reported. The spacecraft is designed to fly in low orbit for as long as nine months.
The X-37B looks like a space shuttle orbiter, with a similar shape and payload bay for cargo and experiments. But unlike US space shuttles that can stay in orbit for only about two weeks and are costly to maintain, X-37B can reportedly be used repeatedly with less costs.
The space plane is meant to serve as a test platform for unspecified experiments before gliding to an autonomous runway landing, the US Air Force said.
The US military has only made the general description of the mission objectives of its latest space launch public - to test of guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous operations in orbit, re-entry and landing, media reported.
"This launch helps ensure that our warfighters will be provided the capabilities they need in the future," said Colonel Andre Lovett, a launch official and vice-commander of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, in a statement on Thursday.
However, the ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about it remain a mystery.
Experts said the spacecraft is also intended to speed up the development of combat-support and weapons systems.
The spacecraft is the world's only reusable operational spaceship and "an important breakthrough of space technologies", said Zhao Xiaozhuo, a research fellow of military studies under China's Academy of Military Science of the People's Liberation Army.
The space plane is considered to hold potential military value as it can serve combat-support systems and become a platform for launching space weapons, Zhao said.
It can also be easily used for anti-satellite purposes, he said.
"As a superpower, the US has been calling for nuclear disarmament all these years and urged other countries to be more responsible for world peace and safety," Zhao said.
"But in the meantime, its development of the space plane may lead to an arms race in space."
Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the impact of the space plane "may not be serious enough to trigger an arms race in space", but it has demonstrated US resolve to take a leading position in it.
"The US has previously said that it would slow down the pace of developing the space plane project. But now with the launch, it shows the US has never really slowed down," Zhai said.
The space plane has the potential to destroy other nations' satellites, which will help the US take the lead in space, he said.
"China has always insisted on the peaceful exploration of outer space," Zhai said.
"It is urgent for all countries to reach an agreement to avoid weaponizing outer space."
AP contributed to the story.
(China Daily 04/24/2010 page1)