Western space experts here still aren't sure what their quarry looks like, what it's doing -- or when, how, or whether it will come back to earth. But they strongly suspect that the mysterious vehicle docked June 19 to the longorbiting Soviet space station Salyut-6 is part of the Kremlin's answer to the US space shuttle program.
The Soviet craft, like the shuttle, seems at least potentially to be a further step toward launching the arms race into space. The consensus hunch among foreign experts here is that the new, unmanned Soviet vehicle, launched not long after the US shuttle touched down on its desert air strip April 16, could be one of two things:
* A winged craft similar to, but probably smaller than, the US shuttle.
* a prototype "module" that would figure in already announced Soviet plans to piece together large, long-living orbital complexes in space.
The last team of cosmonauts designated to work aboard the aging Salyut-6 station returned to earth in May. Before leaving, the Soviets say, the spacemen fitted on a strengthened linkage mechanism to accommodate the craft now docked there.
What other scant, coy, and ultimately confusing public information the Soviets have so far suppled on the mission seems to suggest the April launch was part of a testing process, and to favor odds that the craft may be some type of space module.
Soviet officials, denouncing the US shuttle program as primarily military, insist they're not planning a similar vehicle of their own. A former Soviet cosmonaut argued in a recent interview with the Monitor that it was more economical, in the long run, to concentrate on "manned experiments through long-term orbital stations."
In reporting the successful docking, the official Soviet news agency said the newly attached "Cosmos-1267 satellite" was "designed to test systems and elements of the design of future spacecraft and to work on methods of assembly of orbital complexes of large size and weight."
The newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya (Soviet Russia) June 20 printed a recap of Soviet plans to assemble a modular space complex and suggested that the Cosmos- 1267 vehicle would "permit far-reaching conclusions" on this score.
Still, the newspaper remained vague on just what the new craft was, or would be, doing. The report said merely that the creation of space modules was "on the agenda."
It was "not by accident," the newspaper said, that spacecraft now being tested had a filled weight of more than 10 tons. This "could" include such equipment as a space telescope, the report said, without making clear whether this was the case with Cosmos- 1267.
The newspaper's further emphasis on "cargo and transport" capacity seemed to lend weight to Western reports that the Soviets are playing around with a shuttle concept. The report's general vagueness certainly did not exclude the possibility.
Foreign experts said they would have to take a look at what Cosmos-1267 did or did not do from here on out -- particularly at whether it attempted to return to earth intact -- in order to get a more reliable picture of possible Soviet shuttle plans.
But most of these analysts are convinced the Soviets plan eventually to test a shuttle craft.The argument is that, no matter what the Soviets say, a reusable shuttle is more economical than one-shot transport craft in helping assemble, adjust, or supply the kind of space complex Moscow has in mind.
Even though the Americans are concentrating on the shuttle itself, they, too, tend to view the vehicle as useful in possible development of a US space complex.
This is where the new twist in the arms race becomes a key issue. Even the most outwardly benign of current space orbiters -- weather and communications satellites -- would take on clear military importance in case of war. Both superpowers are actively working on "antisatellite" programs with this in mind, intelligence and other reports suggest.
Both nations are also said to be seeking a laser- or particle-beam capability to knock out missiles, a development that could turn the earth-bound military balance on its head.
A West European military expert here explains that key to such technology will be the development, stabilization, and stationing (presumably in space) of a power source and other infrastructure for beam weaponry.
"I'd be willing to bet," he said, "that when and if large complexes are put into sp ace, they'll be doing more than gazing at the stars."