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'US' new spacecraft to trigger arms race in space'

The X-37B is an unpiloted military space plane. USAF Photo

BEIJING, (PTI): The latest unmanned spacecraft launched by the US has triggered concerns in China over a new arms race in the space as the "small shuttle" is feared to have platforms to launch new space weapons with ability to carry out anti-satellite operations, media reported Saturday.

State-run 'China Daily' featured the launch of the unmanned spacecraft X-37B as one of the lead stories in the front page with a headline 'US space craft sparks arms race concerns'.

The US Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft with a rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday. The spacecraft is designed to fly in low orbit for as long as nine months.

It will be the first space craft to carry out an autonomous re-entry in the history of the US programme.

The spacecraft is the world's only reusable operational spaceship and "an important breakthrough of space technologies", the daily quoted Zhao Xiaozhuo, a research fellow of military studies under China's Academy of Military Science of the People's Liberation Army, as saying.

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, adding it can also be used for anti-satellite operations.

"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," he said.

Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, however disagreed with Zhou saying that the impact of the space plane with ability to stay in orbit for nine months "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. It is urgent for all countries to reach an agreement to avoid weaponising outer space," Zhai said.

In 2007, China shocked the world by launching a satellite of its own orbiting 500 miles in the space with a missile.

It was the first time that a satellite was destroyed in the space which was seen as attempt by Beijing to demonstrate its technological ability and rising military posture.

It was also interpreted by US officials as a dangerous move towards weaponising space.

The Chinese test also set off India's Defence Research Development Organisation, (DRDO) to go for development of new systems to shoot down low orbiting enemy satellites as well as to invent security systems to protect Indian satellites and deny access to its space assets.

US officials say the X-37B, which is also called Orbital Test Vehicle- 1 (OTV-1) is intended to serve as a platform for experiments and to offer insights on transporting satellite sensors and other equipment to and from space.

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