Russia joins the US and China in spaceplane dream

X-37B spacebomber

General’s hint raises stakes in the race to develop a robotic military space shuttle

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 16:32 ON Mon 7 Feb 2011

THE PROSPECT of a return to the heady days of the space race has been raised after a Russian space chief hinted that his researchers are working on their own version of America's Boeing X-37B - also known as the top secret space warplane.

General-Lieutenant Oleg Ostapenko, Russia's Space Troops Commander, told RIA Novosti: "Something has been done along these lines, but as to whether we will use it, only time will tell."

The X-37B landed - autonomously - in December after a secret 220-day mission in space, prompting much debate about what the spacecraft had been up to. The US Air Force hasn't been especially open about the mission, but has pitched the X-37 series as a kind of fast-turnaround orbital science lab which would allow hardware to be tested in space without the expense of a satellite launch.

The explanation has done nothing to silence the conspiracy theorists, however. For a start, the X-37B, which looks like a smaller version of the soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle, is funded by the shadowy Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which has the stated aim of "maintaining technological superiority of the US military and preventing technological surprise".

Like most of the United States' space programme, it has dual-use capabilities that could conceivably allow it to steal foreign satellites from orbit.

Russians, meanwhile, will hope Ostapenko's "something has been done along these lines" does not refer to the Buran, the old Soviet Union's attempt at a space shuttle. The project did at least have the distinction of beating the Americans to an automated landing by a full 22 years, but it was canned after only one space flight, in 1988.

The Buran and America's Space Shuttle were designed with the express intention of taking the Cold War to space. Documents declassified by Moscow show that the now-defunct MIR space station was intended as a base for up to four Soviet wingless space shuttle bombers.

So it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Russia might be taking an interest in the top secret space plans of their old enemy.

Vladimir Shcherbakov, deputy editor of Vzlyot, a Russian aerospace journal, told the Christian Science Monitor he thinks Russia has much to fear from a space plane that could take out all its satellites and could well be working on its own version of the X-37.

"The Americans haven't declared who their X-37 is to be used against. They just say they're developing new technologies.

"When the Boeing X-37 was tested, it raised questions from the bosses about whether we were building one, too. But this is a secret subject in the US, and even more so here. So no one will tell you for sure."

But one thing is for sure - this time the development of a space plane is not a two-horse race. China is known to be developing its own spaceplane, the Shenlong or 'divine dragon'.

Who will win? Russia, with its new-found oil and gas wealth, booming, cash-rich China, or credit- crunched USA? Uh-oh. · 

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