China plans to launch its reusable spacecraft in 2020, according to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation Tuesday.
Unlike traditional one-off spacecraft, the new spacecraft will fly into the sky like an aircraft, said Chen Hongbo, a researcher from the corporation.
The spacecraft can transport people or payload into the orbit and return to Earth.
Chen said that the spacecraft will be easier to maintain and can improve the frequency of launches at lower cost, bringing new opportunities for more people to travel into space.
China’s secretive spaceplane may launch in 2020
Country claims "remarkable achievements" in reusable spaceship development.
There have been rumors about China's development of a spaceplane for the better part of a decade, but now the vehicle has a tentative launch date. According to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, published by the Chinese state news service Xinhua, the reusable spacecraft will launch in 2020.
Should Chinese scientists and engineers deliver on their promises, some of the technology promised by the new spaceplane will be downright futuristic. Based on various reports, the spacecraft would take off from a runway and then, higher in the atmosphere, shift to ramjet propulsion before finally using rocket motors to exit Earth's atmosphere and move into orbit around the planet.
In June, a key official with the state corporation developing the vehicle said significant progress had been made. “Currently, China is developing its own reusable earth-to-orbit space vehicles that can take off and land horizontally," Liu Shiquan, vice director of the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation, said. "We have already finished several crucial ground tests for engines and [other key components], yielding remarkable achievements."
Such a spacecraft would be significant because, while China has made impressive strides in its aerospace program, much of the technology has until now been derivative of Russian and US vehicles. Unlike the US space shuttle, the Soviet Buran shuttle, and the US military's X-37B, however, the Chinese spaceplane would not launch into space aboard a rocket but instead would operate as a true runway-to-space-to-runway vehicle.
Private US companies have been trying to develop spaceplanes that take off and land on a runway over the last decade, such as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and XCOR's Lynx (which is on hold due to a lack of funding), but these efforts have focused on suborbital flights. Reaching orbit, as the Chinese spaceplane apparently will do, requires orders of magnitude more energy.
A Chinese spaceplane that could take off, fly into Earth orbit with crew or cargo, and then land, offers the tantalizing possibility of low-cost, reusable spaceflight. This is what NASA sought in the 1970s with the space shuttle but ultimately fell short of due to the need for extensive refurbishment of the spacecraft and its engines between flights.
It is interesting to note that both SpaceX and Blue Origin looked at the problem of low-cost access to space—both for cargo and crewed missions—before settling upon reusable first stage rockets and capsules that can be recovered and flown again. China's engineers have chosen a different route, so it will be interesting to see which approach succeeds. Hopefully, all of the above.