China launched a rocket into space on Monday, but no objects were placed into orbit, the Pentagon said. The object re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the Indian Ocean.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said: “We tracked several objects during the flight but did not observe the insertion of any objects into orbit and no objects associated with this launch remain in space.”
The rocket reached 6,250 miles (10,000km) above Earth, the highest suborbital launch seen worldwide since 1976, according to Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.
China said the rocket, launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, carried a scientific payload to study the earth’s magnetosphere.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “I want to emphasise that China has consistently advocated the peaceful use of outer space and opposes the weaponisation of outer space as well as an arms race in outer space.”
A US defence official said American intelligence showed that the rocket could be used to carry an anti-satellite payload on a similar trajectory. Neither the US official nor the Pentagon released details of what the Chinese rocket carried into space.
“It was a ground-based missile that we believe would be their first test of an interceptor that would be designed to go after a satellite that’s actually in orbit,” said the official.
Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the US house intelligence committee, declined to comment on the rocket launch, but said: “Any time you have a nation-state looking to have a more aggressive posture in space, it’s very concerning.”
The US remains concerned about China’s development of anti-satellite capabilities after Beijing shot a missile at one of its own defunct satellites in orbit in 2007, creating a lot of debris.
Monday’s rocket launch was similar to launches using the Blue Scout Junior rocket that were conducted by the US Air Force in the 1960s for research on Earth’s magnetosphere, Mr McDowell said.
He said all the previous suborbital launches above 10,000km, had been conducted by the US. All China’s previous missile tests went to less than 2,000km, although Beijing had launched orbital vehicles higher, including to the moon, he said.
Most scientific suborbital launches are at most 1,500km, Mr McDowell added.
Last week, the Pentagon released a report on Chinese military developments that highlighted China’s space capabilities and said Beijing was pursuing a variety of activities.