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Sputnik Moment: How Long Could China’s Hypersonic Weapon Stay in Orbit?

Orbital Hypersonic Missile
Image: Creative Commons.

China’s recent hypersonic weapon test might be a Sputnik moment for the U.S.: One of the United States Space Force’s top generals explained that China’s recently-launched hypersonic orbital weapon could stay fixed in space, circling the earth for an extended period.

Space Force Lieutenant General Chance Saltzman, the Deputy Chief of Space Operations for Operations, Cyber, and Nuclear, shed some light on China’s new weapon during an online-only event hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, and which can be seen in its entirety below.

Saltzman underlined the importance of definitions when talking about new and potentially misunderstood weapon systems, explaining “the words that we use are important, so that we understand exactly what we’re talking about here,” he stated. “I hear things like hypersonic missile, and I hear suborbital sometimes.”

Hypersonic is, by definition, a projectile that travels in excess of Mach 5, or greater than five times the speed of sound. Suborbital refers to a trajectory (usually a rocket or missile) that has the potential to reach space but does not enter an orbit around the earth and circle the planet. A fractional orbit, however — the kind of orbit demonstrated by the recent Chinese missile test — essentially means that a projectile can stay in orbit for as long as needed, then exit an earth orbit to engage a target on earth.

Hypersonic Test

The Financial Times initially broke the story about China’s recent hypersonic weapon test. The Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff compared the test to the United States’ so-called Sputnik moment in 1957, when the Soviet-launched Sputnik satellite — the world’s first — prompted a renewed focus and flurry of investment in American space capabilities, kicking off the space race.

The Chinese test demonstrated two unique features: the ability to drop a payload while flying at hypersonic speed. Given the intense heat and stress generated by flying at supersonic speeds, this is potentially a significant feat of engineering. Second, entering a fractional orbit around the planet, then leaving orbit and crashing down to earth.

Early Warning and Detection

Staying in orbit for extended periods would make a suborbital weapon like the kind China recently tested challenging to track for the United States’ existing missile defense system. Currently, the United States’ existing missile defense system is optimized for detecting and tracking traditional ballistic missiles fire from Russia, rather than a suborbital weapon launched from China.

“A lot of our warning, you know, is based on ballistic missiles because that’s the been the primary threat for so many years,” Gen. Saltzman explained. “And so it’s incumbent on the Space Force, in my mind, to make sure that we’re developing the capabilities to track these kinds of weapons. Before they’re launched, ideally, but then throughout their lifecycle – either on orbit or in execution of their mission set.”

“If we can track we can attribute … I think we can deter,” the general added. Furthermore, the U.S. Space Force must “make sure that we’re developing those capacities to be able to track and hold accountable nations who are using these kinds of destabilizing weapons.”

China’s Hypersonic Weapons: What’s Next? 

Though many details about China’s recent hypersonic missile, fractional orbit test are not publicly known, what is more certain is the test’s unique nature — and the United States’ unpreparedness. But the test may yet prompt the United States military to build something similar.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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