The development of a space plane in China has been rumored for almost a decade, but now the vehicle has a tentative launch date. According to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, published by China’s state news service Xinhua, the reusable spacecraft will be launched in 2020.
If Chinese scientists and engineers keep their promises, some of the new spaceplane’s promised technology will be downright futuristic. Based on various reports, the spacecraft would lift off from a runway and then, higher in the atmosphere, switch to jet engine propulsion before finally using rocket engines to leave Earth’s atmosphere and enter orbit around the planet.
In June, a key official at the state-owned company developing the vehicle said significant progress had been made. “Currently, China is developing its own reusable Earth-to-orbit spacecraft that can take off and land horizontally,” said Liu Shiquan, vice president of the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation. “We have already completed several crucial ground tests for engines and [other key components]deliver remarkable achievements.”
Such a spacecraft would be important because while China has made impressive strides in its space program, much of the technology to date has been derived from Russian and American vehicles. However, unlike the U.S. space shuttle, the Soviet Buran shuttle, and the U.S. military’s X-37B, the Chinese spaceplane would not launch into space aboard a rocket, but would instead operate as a true orbit-to-fly. space-to-orbit vehicle.
Private US companies have spent the last decade trying to develop spacecraft that take off and land on a runway, such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR’s Lynx (which is on hold due to lack of funding), but these efforts have focused on suborbital flights. Achieving orbit, as the Chinese spaceplane will apparently do, requires orders of magnitude more energy.
A Chinese spaceplane that can take off, fly into orbit with crew or payload, and then land offers the tantalizing possibility of low-cost, reusable spaceflight. This is what NASA sought with the space shuttle in the 1970s, but ultimately failed to do due to the need for extensive refurbishment of the spacecraft and engines between flights.
It is interesting to note that both SpaceX and Blue Origin looked at the problem of cheap access to space – for both cargo and manned missions – before settling on reusable rockets and first stage capsules that can be recovered and can be flown again. The Chinese engineers have taken a different route, so it will be interesting to see which approach succeeds. Hopefully all of the above.