In recent months, both the U.S. and China have reported the successful conclusions of space missions involving space planes. According to Airforce Technology, the U.S. X-37B space plane conducted a mission titled OTV-6 and broke a record after circling the Earth for 908 days.
Similarly, China launched a space plane into orbit, according to Space.com. It recently landed safely after 276 days.
Both of these space plane missions are shrouded with secrecy and leave much to the imagination. But their similarity demonstrates that beyond technology and science, there are military and legal implications to the American and Chinese space plane programs.
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What Is a Space Plane?
The X-37B space plane is also known as an Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and is designed to be a reusable spacecraft. This space plane is intended to improve space transportation and make space travel less costly.
What Was the OTV-6 Mission?
Although there are few public details on the OTV-6 mission, some information was available. The X-37B space plane was launched on May 18, 2020, according to Airforce Technology, and returned on November 12, 2022.
The Space Force reported on some of what this mission included: “Multiple NASA experiments were deployed on OTV-6. The Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2) included thermal control coatings, printed electronic materials, and candidate radiation shielding materials.
“METIS-1 – which flew on OTV-5 – consisted of similar sample plates mounted on the flight vehicle. NASA scientists will leverage data collected after the materials have spent 900+ days in orbit and compare observed effects to ground simulations, validating and improving the precision of space environment models.
“Another NASA experiment aims to investigate the effect of long-duration space exposure on seeds. Scientists are interested in the seeds’ resistance and susceptibility to space environment-unique stresses, notably radiation. The seeds experiment will inform space crop production for future interplanetary missions and the establishment of permanently inhabited bases in space.”
All of these experiments sound wonderful for improving human knowledge, but what about the other days that the X-37B spent in space? Judging by the 908-day length of the OTV-6 mission, it seems likely that more happened than just scientific experiments.
There are many remaining questions about what happened during this space mission, but answers will probably remain unavailable. Mike Wall of Space.com, the leading news outlet for the space industry, said that little is known as to the details of this mission and previous ones involving the OTV. He observed, “Many of these payloads are classified, as are most of the X-37B’s activities; the Space Force doesn’t announce details of the vehicle’s orbit, for example, or tell us in advance when each OTV mission is going to end.”
China’s Space Plane
The mission of the space plane that China launched is equally mysterious. Stephen Chen of The South China Morning Post reported that a space plane similar to the X-37B successfully returned after a 276-day mission. Chen also noted that “China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the nation’s biggest space defence contractor, hailed the classified mission as a ‘complete success,’ saying it ‘marks an important breakthrough’ in China’s research into the technology….Reusable spacecraft ‘will provide a more convenient and cost-effective way for peaceful use of space.’”
But with this space plane, there are also many unanswered questions regarding the true nature of its mission. But from the perspective of international relations, these missions can teach us one or two things about the evolution of U.S.-China relations.
A Space Race Between the US and China
It appears that the U.S and China are having a space race. These unmanned, reusable space planes are cheaper and are a sign of a more long-term view of space exploration. Both China and the U.S. are looking at long-term space exploration, which has both civilian and military implications.
The U.S. embarked on a new phase in its space exploration after the rollout of the Artemis Accords. The U.S. is not only concerned with space exploration but also private-public partnerships.
The U.S. has also focused on the economic benefits of space exploration. However, the OTV-6 space plane mission reminds us that there is a military aspect to space missions as well.
When it comes to China, it seems that Beijing has the same motivations for space exploration. The benefits of a space program in the international arena are obvious to both Washington and Beijing, and it seems that this space race is here to stay.
The first space race between the U.S. and Russia boosted scientific discovery and created technological advancements that changed the world’s economy forever. However, the military aspects of this space race require careful thought regarding boundaries necessary to maintain world peace and stability.
Clearly, the relationship between the U.S. and China is complex but there is still room for productive dialogue and the creation of rules. The space frontier is different; it is in many ways uncharted waters as far as international law is concerned.
Related link: Examining the Space Force and the Future of US Space Policy
Space Law Development Should Be a Priority
The space race between the U.S. and China should be an impetus for opening international dialogue and creating new treaties. Attempts to create treaties in the late 1960s and 1970s failed when the U.S. and Russia could not find a common ground; perhaps now we have reached a point when we can chart a new course in space law and international politics.
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