China is planning to launch its secretive space plane by 2020, according to a report last week by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
The website cited a statement from the China Aerospace Science and Technology (CAST) Corporation, which said the vehicle will transport people and cargo into orbit, before returning to Earth.
Chen Hongbo, a researcher from CAST, said the vehicle would fly into the sky like an aircraft, adding it would be “easier to maintain and can improve the frequency of launches at lower cost.”
A lot of details about this vehicle are still unknown. But Ars Technica suggests the vehicle is intended to have the ability to liftoff from a runway, travel into orbit, and then return to a runway.
No other space plane, which includes the US Space Shuttle and the Soviet Union’s Buran, has been able to do this, as they required a rocket to launch the shuttle into space.
A number of private companies have touted similar technology though. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is planned to reach suborbit, although it requires a carrier aircraft to do so.
The Lynx space plane, developed by private company XCOR, was proposed as a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) runway to runway spacecraft. The company is currently experiencing funding issues, though.
Perhaps the most ambitious space plane in the planning stages, and maybe the closest in design to China’s effort, is the Skylon space plane in the UK. Making use of the revolutionary SABRE engine, this vehicle could operate both in the atmosphere of Earth and in the vacuum of space.
Last year, reports emerged of another space plane being developed in China, this one by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). It would launch vertically on a rocket and carry up to 20 people into suborbit, rather than orbit, with paying customers able to buy a ride for $200,000. It’s unclear if the two projects are related.
The latest statement from CAST suggests this project is China’s approach to low-cost space flight. Companies in the US like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance are betting big on reusable rocket technology. China looks to be taking a different route.
It’s one that the US has tried before, and arguably failed, with its Space Shuttle. We’ll have to wait and see if China succeeds where others have not.