China’s “experimental reusable spacecraft” that has just completed its first test flight may have been a space plane, according to sources, in what would be a step towards a craft that could potentially be developed for military applications including to strike satellites or ballistic missiles.
Details of the spacecraft have not been released, but the secretive mission was hailed for “key breakthroughs” by state news agency Xinhua on Sunday after the craft landed safely following two days orbiting the planet. It said the spacecraft was launched with a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan satellite centre in Inner Mongolia on Friday.
Only one image of the rocket on the launch pad was released, and there were none of the mysterious spacecraft itself and no other information was given.
However, a military source previously told the South China Morning Post that “maybe you can take a look at the US X-37B” – suggesting the experimental craft could be similar to the US Air Force’s space plane.
The X-37B is a hypersonic unmanned spacecraft, also launched by a rocket, that began its sixth mission in May. It operates like a smaller version of Nasa’s Space Shuttle and spent 730 days in orbit from 2017 to 2019.
A second military source said the mission was likely to be linked to the Shenlong – or divine dragon – space plane project, which has been in development for more than two decades.
Its first reusable spacecraft launch was slated for 2020 under a “space transport road map” released three years ago by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the main contractor for the country’s space programme.
At the time, Chinese authorities stressed that the project was for peaceful purposes and that the spacecraft would “provide more convenient and cheaper transport for the peaceful use of space in the future”.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator in Hong Kong, said those peaceful purposes could include “the launch and repair or retrieval of satellites, as well as monitoring safety in orbit”.
But the spacecraft could also have military applications, although such uses are banned under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
The space plane under development is technically a long-endurance drone that can fly at hypersonic speed in space and change orbit, and could potentially be used to strike satellites, space stations, ground targets or even ballistic missiles, while the spacecraft itself would be hard to detect or intercept.
Meanwhile, another Chinese spacecraft and missile developer, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, has been working on a second reusable space plane called Tengyun, or cloud climber, which comprises a larger carrier aircraft and a smaller vessel. A wind tunnel experiment carried out in October simulated the aerodynamics of a launch of the two aircraft.
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More from South China Morning Post:
- India joins hypersonic club with successful test flight of cruise vehicle
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- Mystery surrounds China’s launch of reusable experimental spacecraft
This article China’s mystery experimental spacecraft ‘could be part of Shenlong space plane project’ first appeared on South China Morning Post