China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon two months ago, making strides with the technology that surprised and alarmed U.S. officials, according to a media report.
In August, China launched a Long March rocket topped with a hypersonic glide vehicle, which ended up missing its target by just 24 miles (39 kilometers) or so, The Financial Times reported (opens in new tab) on Sunday (Oct. 17).
The newspaper cited five unnamed people familiar with the launch, two of whom "said the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized."
China has denied the report, claiming that the August mission was nothing to be concerned about.
"This test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify the reusable technology of spacecraft, which is of great significance for reducing the cost of spacecraft use," Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a press briefing on Monday (Oct. 18), CNN reported (opens in new tab).
"It can provide a convenient and cheap way for humans to use space peacefully," Zhao said. "Many companies in the world have carried out similar experiments."
Hypersonic vehicles are widely viewed as the next frontier in military technology. They fly at least five times faster than the speed of sound (opens in new tab) and are highly maneuverable, making them more difficult to track and intercept than intercontinental ballistic missiles, which follow predictable trajectories.
China, Russia and the United States are all actively developing and testing hypersonic vehicles. Just two weeks ago, for example, Russia announced that it had test-fired its new Zircon hypersonic missile from a nuclear submarine for the first time (opens in new tab). And in September, the U.S. military said that one of its designs, the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), achieved hypersonic speeds during a recent flight test.
"The HAWC free-flight test was a successful demonstration of the capabilities that will make hypersonic cruise missiles a highly effective tool for our warfighters," Andrew "Tippy" Knoedler, HAWC program manager in the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said in a statement late last month (opens in new tab). "This brings us one step closer to transitioning HAWC to a program of record that offers next-generation capability to the U.S military."
And hypersonics aren't the exclusive realm of big global powers, either. Last month, North Korea announced that it had just tested its new Hwasong-8 hypersonic weapon. North Korean state media declared that flight a success, but outside experts don't think the vehicle reached hypersonic speeds.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).