Purported spaceplane launch image courtesy LaunchStuff via weibo.com

China’s just-returned reusable spacecraft “may be like US’ X-37B, focusing on civilian use, tapping into space application potential,” experts say.

That statement comes not from twitter-feeding and fueling appraisals but from China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

Following a flight of two days, the Chinese craft landed at a “designated site” on Sunday, “marking a breakthrough in China’s technology for reusing spacecraft,” Xinhua reports.

Possible landing site for Chinese space plane? Airfield photo credit: ESA/Copernicus Sentinel via Marco Langbroek

Tight-lipped

Meanwhile, Chinese space authorities remain tight-lipped on the experimental flight, launched last Friday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center atop a Long March-2F booster, the launch vehicle for China’s crewed space projects.

Reportedly, local Chinese rocket watchers were requested to not photograph or video record the liftoff from outside the launch site – although one takeoff image has seemingly emerged.

“No official renders or photos of the spacecraft have been made public as of press time, Xinhua notes, adding that “the successful experiment of the spacecraft offers more convenient solutions for future peaceful use of the space and enables cheaper round-trips.”

China has had a long-standing interest in reusable space planes.
Courtesy: Jean Deville/China Aerospace Blog

New materials, new age of modularization

Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Sunday, that the just-concluded mission was designed to test the performance of new materials for the reusable vehicle and to test the monitor and control system.

Also, Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine was cited as saying the test would focus on the vehicle’s capability to enter orbit via a carrier rocket launch and the reliability of its returning to Earth, which are key for a reusable orbital vehicle.

X-37B Air Force space plane.
Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screengrab

“The vehicle could be equipped with robotic arms to conduct maintenance and supply missions for on-orbit spacecraft such as satellites. And in return, Chinese satellites could enter a new age of modularization, further tap into the potential of space application,” Wang said. It is too early to determine when the Chinese orbital vehicle could be put into practical use, as the project has only just had its first launch and return test, Wang added, noting that once the technology matures, China would be the third country to have such space planes, following the U.S. and Russia.

“China has not developed this kind of reusable orbital vehicle before, and once it achieves maturity and puts into practical use, it will transform the current space use landscape in both civilian and military use,” experts said in the just-posted Xinhua story.

Boeing handout describes X-37B program.
Credit: Boeing

X-37B-like?

Regarding comparisons between China’s “mysterious vehicle,” if it is a fixed wing space plane, and the X-37B space plane owned by the US Air Force, the Xinhua article explains that, considering the data and method of launch, “China’s orbital vehicle could be very similar to US’ X-37B, and the vehicle could have a fixed wing span of more than four meters,” citing a remark from Wang.

The use of the Long March-2F booster for the mission shows that the experiment mission is of great significance, Xi Yazhou, a military expert, said in his column published by Guancha.com on Friday.

Credit: Jean Deville

As related in the Xinhua news story, China’s reusable orbital spacecraft would be first used in civilian domains, conducting operations such as surveying the Earth, monitoring the environment and maintenance for in-orbit satellites, tagging that statement to space experts.

“China’s authorities have not revealed any intention of military use for the vehicle, but observers stressed that just as the US Air Force’s X-37B claimed to have the capability to strike anywhere on Earth within half an hour, China should at least have that capability,” the Xinhua article concludes.

A recent two-piece blog post by Jean Deville at China Aerospace Blog on the evolution of Chinese space planes could help decipher the intent of China’s space plane ambitions.

Go to these postings by Deville at:

https://china-aerospace.blog/2020/05/05/chinese-spaceplanes-a-historical-perspective/?fbclid=IwAR2oc2zdEhcqC4G3meiP_DjabEB_aR9ED4-Kf–MeJfnaKV2Ib2BgaYiCgE

and

https://china-aerospace.blog/2020/05/11/chinas-spaceplane-projects-past-present-and-future/?fbclid=IwAR0_IT1IJnJ9R2IidQUNpBXo-Sz2O9U6WhPB1S98CYJR83OBwcgJrtV4IhI

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