China now has its very own space plane. The Chinese development of spaceplane technology will be remarkable if they manage to overcome the problems Dyna-Soar and the Space Shuttle faced, and the challenges SpaceX’s Starship is now facing as well.
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China launched a classified reusable vehicle to Earth orbit on Thursday, making it the country’s second such launch in the last two years. According to reports, the test spacecraft was launched by a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
Chinese state-run news outlet Xinhua claims that “The test spacecraft will be in orbit for a period of time before returning to the scheduled landing site in China, during which reusable and in-orbit service technology verification will be carried out as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”
According to additional information from SpaceNews.com, the spacecraft was afterwards tracked by the 18th Space Defense Squadron of the United States Space Force in a 346 by 593 kilometer orbit with a 50-degree inclination.
The Long March 2F, named after the “Long March” that marked the beginning of Mao Zedong’s rise to power, was created to launch China’s Shenzhou crewed missions and has a payload capability of little over eight metric tons to low Earth orbit, according to the few other facts that have been made public. It might have been altered, though, to allow for the launch of the reusable test spacecraft.
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It is unknown if the vehicle that was launched this week was the same one that was utilized in the test in September 2020. However, during that voyage, the spacecraft remained in orbit for two days and apparently delivered a small payload into space before coming back to Earth and landing in China.
A Chinese X-37B?
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is a test program designed to demonstrate technology for a dependable, reusable unmanned space test platform. The X-37B’s principal goals are twofold: developing reusable spacecraft technology for America’s future in space and conducting experiments that can be returned to and analyzed on Earth. The Space Force is also thought to be operating two of the 29-foot-long (8.8-meter) Boeing-built vessels.
The present Chinese mission’s aim is unknown, however it is thought to be to construct a low-cost vehicle that would offer dependable access to space through reusable launch vehicles and a space plane. Such projects, however, may encounter a variety of technological and other hurdles.
“Spaceplanes and reusable orbital vehicles have come and gone, and come back again. There can be some marginal and varied uses for them but they are extremely expensive compared to conventional rockets because the stresses of atmospheric re-entry wreaks havoc on the materials and structures,” Bleddyn Bowen of the University of Leicester told SpaceNews.
“The Chinese development of spaceplane technology will be remarkable if they manage to overcome the problems Dyna-Soar and the Space Shuttle faced, and the challenges SpaceX’s Starship is now facing as well,” Bowen added. “We should see spaceplane development as part of China’s wider investments in all manner of space technologies, civilian and military, and not as something uniquely threatening or certain to succeed where others have failed.”