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China Launched a Little Baby Version of the X-37B Spaceplane

·3 min read
  • China announced it carried out a successful test flight of a reusable spaceplane.

  • China and the spacecraft’s manufacturer, CASC, did not reveal any details of the flight.

  • The mysterious vehicle is a stepping stone to large, more capable craft like the Air Force’s X-37B.

A Chinese aerospace manufacturer hailed a successful test flight of a new spaceplane that will broaden China’s reusable spaceflight capabilities.

The unnamed craft reportedly takes off like a rocket and lands like an airplane, much like the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B (pictured above), but can’t go all the way into orbit like the American spaceplane can. The Chinese version is the first of a series of reusable spacecraft that will benefit the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

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The launch took place last Friday at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. China’s Global Times reported the suborbital craft “landed at an airport in Alxa Right Banner in North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.”

Suborbital spacecraft differ from orbital spacecraft in that they lack the power to reach full low-Earth orbit. After their engines shut down, suborbital spacecraft must return to Earth. Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, which just carried Jeff Bezos to space, is an example of a suborbital craft.

Companies like Blue Origin are interested in suborbital craft as vehicles for space tourism. China’s government is decidedly not interested in space tourism; instead, it sees the craft as a stepping stone to bigger, more capable spaceplanes. Space News says the craft’s developer, state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC), is planning a nuclear-powered shuttle by 2045.

CASC is an aerospace giant that builds rockets, missiles, and the Rainbow series of military drones. The company said the spaceplane launch served as a “flight demonstration and verification project” that “indicates China’s transition from a big space-faring nation to a strong one.”

Neither CASC nor the Chinese government shared any actual photos of the craft. That’s because China’s State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense said the vehicle is “too advanced to be put on display.”

China’s military will almost certainly operate reusable spacecraft in the future. The PLA has the same requirements as the U.S. Air Force, and could use a spaceplane to launch satellites into orbit, conduct reconnaissance missions, and perform other military tasks.

Boeing’s X-37B, as a refresher, is built to spend months in orbit, carrying out classified missions on behalf of the U.S.’s military space program. The spacecraft works in or out of the atmosphere with slightly different mechanics at play in each.

Where a classic amphibious vehicle is designed to manage on land or in water, the X-37B thrives in both air and space, using the physics of the atmosphere for self defense and eluding enemies. The reusable craft’s ability to orbit in either environment makes it both special and challenging in the existing landscape of airplanes and spacecraft.

The X-37B most recently launched its sixth mission—testing a solar power system that beams energy to Earth with a laser—in May 2020, and before that, it famously stayed in space for a record-setting 780 days, returning home in October 2019 from a mission that saw it host “Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others” and provide a “ride for small satellites,” per an Air Force press release.

The chief military advantage of spaceplanes is their payload bays, which enable them to launch and recover payloads, and then land on any sufficiently long runway in their path.

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