The Chinese national flag in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER
The Chinese national flag in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER

China said the object it launched into space earlier in 2021 was a “reusable space vehicle”, describing a more innocuous incident than a report over the weekend that Beijing sent a hypersonic missile into orbit. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular news briefing on Monday that the test had “great significance for reducing the cost” of space flights. “As we understand, this test is a routine space vehicle test to verify the technology of repeated use of a space vehicle,” he said in response to a question about a Financial Times report on Saturday about what it said was a hypersonic missile test.

“It can provide convenience and affordability for journeys to and from space as part of the peaceful use of space for humanity,” Zhao said. “There are many companies all over the world that have conducted similar tests.”

It comes as concern grows around China’s nuclear capabilities and race between China, Russia and the US in hypersonic missile technology.

The Financial Times reported, citing people familiar with the matter, that the Chinese military sent a nuclear-capable missile into low-orbit space and around the globe in August before cruising down to its target. Although the weapon missed its mark nearly 40km, the paper said, the technology could be used to send nuclear warheads over the South Pole and around US anti-missile systems.

Zhao initially confirmed the August date of the test, but the foreign ministry later clarified that the launch he was referring to happened in July. When asked whether he was speaking about the same launch as the Financial Times, Zhao replied: “I did not talk about a missile, I talked about a space vehicle.”

Chinese state broadcaster CGTN described Zhao’s remarks as refuting the Financial Times story. 

It wasn’t immediately clear what sort of space vehicle Zhao was describing, though his reference to “companies” appeared to describe something similar to the reusable rockets pioneered by companies such as SpaceX. While Chinese state media reported a successful test of a reusable experimental spacecraft in September 2020, the part of a missile that carries warheads is also called a “vehicle”. 

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