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Russia Building Space Shuttle That Drops Nuclear Bombs?

Jul 15, 2016 03:21 AM EDT

Media sources are abuzz over news that Russia is developing a hypersonic space plane that will have the capacity to deploy nuclear warheads from orbit. TASS reports that the Russian Ministry of Defense has issued a denial, saying that the media has mistaken an academic's hypothetical scenario for a real news story.

But would the Russian Ministry of Defense have confirmed the story even if it were true? Russian government news outlets RIA Novosti and Sputnik News ran with the space plane story before the the denial was issued, further confusing the matter.

Sputnik reported that a Lt. Col. Aleksei Solodovnikov informed the state-run RIA Novosti that the Russian Strategic Missile Forces Academy is developing an space plane capable of launching nuclear strikes from orbit. He is quoted as saying, "The idea is that the bomber will take off from a normal home airfield to patrol Russian airspace. Upon command it will ascend into outer space, strike a target with nuclear warheads and then return to its home base."

Sputnik did not name the plane in its story, but several news sources are identifying it as the Tupolev PAK-DA stealth bomber, which is expected to make its first flight in 2021. However, previous news stories about the PAK-DA referred to it as a subsonic plane and made no mention of any orbital capabilities.

Meanwhile, other news sites have reported on Russia's development of an aerospace plane engine, with no mention of any deployment of nuclear missiles from space. According to TASS, Strategic Missile Force Commander Sergei Karakayev said that the academy had developed an engine that could switch from an airborne mode of operation to a rocket mode for outer space flight.

This experimental engine will be showcased at the "ARMY-2016" International Miltary-Technical Forum to be held in Kubinka, Russia on Sept. 6-11, 2016. A prototype aircraft using the technology is expected to take to the skies by 2025.

A technical consultant told TASS that the aircraft will have a unique capability "to climb to the near-Earth space and perform controlled flights with a hypersonic speed there." The unnamed source is known to be connected with the first deputy CEO of the Radioelectronic Technologies Group, which performs R&D for the aircraft's onboard equipment.

The Sputnik news story reports on the experimental engine in connection with the scenario of a space plane that fires nuclear bombs. It is plausible that someone came up with a hypothetical scenario in which the next-generation PAK-DA stealth bomber could be equipped with the experimental aerospace plane engine - which does not necessarily mean that such a program is in place.

It may be technically possible for Russia to combine the two technological developments and build a nuclear-capable space shuttle. But Russia, along with the United States, the United Kingdom and 101 other countries, is signatory to the Outer Space Treaty. This international treaty explicitly forbids weapons of mass destruction from being stationed in outer space.

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