Lift-off for military tech: Chinese rocket launch ‘puts space weaponry to the test’
It was just one launch, but the successful maiden flight of a new-generation carrier rocket on Saturday pointed to a multitude of breakthroughs in Chinese space weaponry, according to military experts.
The Long March-7 lifted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in the mainland’s southernmost Hainan province, carrying 13.5 tonnes of cargo – 90 per cent of which was taken up by the rocket’s special non-toxic fuel designed for multiple launch vehicles, plus wind-resistance devices, a re-entry capsule, a number of small satellites and other equipment.
For Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong, there were telling details in the Xinhua photos taken of the bullet-shaped re-entry module soon after it landed in the Badain Jaran Desert, in Inner Mongolia.
“The so-called re-entry capsule looks similar to China’s hypersonic glide vehicle DF-ZF,” Wong said.
“The colour of the capsule also indicated the use of a new, heat-resistant coating for a hypersonic vehicle.”
China started testing hypersonic gliders – which can travel at speeds of up to 11,300km/h and possibly carry nuclear warheads – in 2014, according to Pentagon officials cited by the Washington Free Beacon. Some sources suggest the vehicles could be ready for deployment by 2020.
Professor He Qisong, a defence policy specialist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, agreed that the re-entry module’s protective coating could be used for both spacecraft and hypersonic gliders.
He said that as the module plummeted back to earth, temperatures could reach 2,800 degrees Celsius.
“Unlike the technology for single-use items like satellites and rockets, which don’t need to return to earth after launch, the re-entry module’s protective coating needs to be more sophisticated and heat-resistant,” he said.
At 2.3 metres tall and 2.6 metres in diameter, the 2.6 tonne re-entry capsule is a “space shuttle bus”, according to scientists cited by the official China Science Daily.
The researchers said that apart from gains in coating technology, the capsule’s test run confirmed advances in reusable spacecraft, in-flight systems to gather thermal and aerodynamic data, and communications during re-entry.
The speed with which scientists from the Carrier Rocket Technology Research Institutes with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) located the module on the ground also pointed to greater navigation accuracy, He said.
The landing site was pinpointed soon after the capsule touched down because of an additional automatic navigation device on the vehicle.
The new technology proved that China’s accuracy in this area met international levels, He said.
Wong said that overall, the launch suggested China’s ballistic missile technology was entering a new stage that aided the development of the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile and the “carrier-killer” DF-21D, which could threaten US military installations on Guam.
The accuracy of navigation and protective coating of re-entry capsule suggested that the launch also aimed at testing China’s anti-missile interception technology, which would help it to break Nato’s anti-missile system and also help its DF-26 to hit its target, Wong said.
Yang Baohua, the deputy manager of CASTC, said last weekend’s test had bolstered China’s push to have a heavy-lift launch vehicle within 15 years – and showed its plans were going smoothly.
At the moment, China’s rockets can lift a payload and vehicle of about 100 tonnes into space – enough for manned moon missions and to launch deep-space probes. But this heavy-launch capacity would expand that capacity to 3,000 tones.
“We plan to make breakthroughs in key technologies within five years to pave the way for the development of heavy-lift launch vehicles,” Xinhua quoted Yang as saying.
He said that Yang’s remarks indicated that China would be able to catch up with the US and launch giant advanced military spy satellites into orbit about 20,000 km above the earth.
“Those kinds of sophisticated satellites are on a par with the US satellites that support its Global Positioning System,” He said.