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China appears to have combined orbiting nukes with long-range gliders
What is China’s new hypersonic glide vehicle?
The country appears to have combined orbiting nukes with long-range gliders
IN AUGUST a Chinese “Long March” rocket streaked into space. That is hardly unusual; there were nearly three dozen such launches last year. But having begun to orbit the Earth, the rocket’s payload then swung back down, glided through the upper atmosphere and crashed into the ground, missing a target by about 40km.
According to the Financial Times, which first reported the news, this was a test of a new, nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle. China has insisted that it merely conducted a “routine test of a space vehicle to verify technology of spacecraft's reusability”. Yet the demonstration reportedly stunned American officials. “We have no idea how they did this,” one of them told the newspaper. What are hypersonic gliders and why do they matter?
Conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) follow a parabolic trajectory, like a ball thrown into the air which falls back down under the action of gravity. That makes them visible and predictable. A missile fired at America from either Russia or China must arc high over the North Pole, where it can be spotted by American and Canadian radar systems in the Arctic. And although some warheads can manoeuvre a little once they re-enter the atmosphere, it is easy to work out roughly where they are headed.