It was a space launch to change the world. On January 11, 2007, a solid-fuelled rocket lifted off from Xichang Space Center in central China, a non-explosive ‘kill vehicle’ fitted to its tip. Five hundred miles above the earth, the now-separated kill vehicle struck an 8-year-old Chinese weather satellite, pulverizing it and leaving behind a cloud of some 1,000 large pieces of debris.
The unannounced Chinese launch was the first full-scale test of an anti-satellite system since the US Air Force's 1985 demonstration of a satellite-killing missile launched by an F-15 fighter. And the global response to China’s move was swift and vociferous, with Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States condemning the intercept.
‘China's development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area,’ said Gordon Johndroe from the US National Security Council at the time.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A year later, the launch reverberated in the most important US election in a generation, when presidential candidate Barack Obama made opposition to such weaponry part of his platform. ‘Obama opposes the stationing of weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons,’ his campaign asserted. ‘He believes the United States must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield.’
Yet just two years into the Obama presidency and it’s clear that these noble sentiments aren’t being matched by US deeds.
On April 22, the US Air Force launched into orbit the world's most sophisticated robotic spacecraft, one whose design counters China's anti-satellite capability—and goes a step further. The X-37B, built by Boeing, could also be used to spy on and even disable other nations’ satellites, all without them necessarily knowing that it’s even happening. With the X-37, the US raised the stakes in the phase of the space race that China began three years ago.
The multi-billion-dollar X-37, in development since the mid-1990s, is a re-usable, unmanned spacecraft that enters orbit atop a standard Air Force heavy rocket and re-enters the atmosphere as a glider. The new craft is similar in layout to the manned Space Shuttle but only quarter the size—just 30 feet from tip to tail.
‘The primary objectives of the X-37 is [testing] a new batch of re-usable technologies for America’s future, plus learning and demonstrating the concept of operations for re-usable experimental payloads,’ Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, told the media in April. ‘Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space. So this is a new way for the Air Force to conduct experiments and we’re really excited about that.’