China is building a reusable space plane that can deliver small payloads to low Earth orbit (Leo) and with capabilities that match up with the American X-37B.
This Chinese space plane is reported to be an unmanned vehicle that will be launched into space using a large mother ship flying at supersonic speeds, according to a report by Popular Mechanics that quoted a Chinese TV news segment. The plane is being developed by China Aerospace and Industry Corporation (CASIC) - a subordinate enterprise to the General Armaments Department, People's Liberation Army.
The idea is to have the space plane bolted to a mother ship, which will then fly to the edge of space. Once it reaches a certain altitude, on-board rockets in the space plane will be engaged, taking it to Leo, where it will deliver its payload. The mother ship will then return to base and land like a normal airplane.
An animated video used Chinese media shows the mother ship as a large, sleek supersonic plane that is powered by ramjet engines. Popular Mechanics points out that they are unnecessary because the speed of a launch ship is irrelevant, and that only the carrying capacity matters. This is evidenced by the way Stratolaunch –the world's largest aircraft– has six normal jet engines that offer 340,000 pounds of thrust.
China is looking to launch this project by 2030, notes the report. This could be because the country does not have the latest technology yet.
However, the animation might not be the final design of the space plane and its mother ship, and has probably been used to explain the concept. Also, the space plane had windows in the clip, notes the report.
This space plane is likely to have smaller load-carrying capabilities when compared to its American counterpart because of the way it is launched. It needs to hold rocket engines and fuel to carry itself into orbit, notes the report. The X-37B on the other hand, has small engines that are only needed for guidance and boost as well as to direct itself as it re-enters. It is taken to space aboard a Saturn V rocket.
The report does not mention what the Chinese government intends to do with the space plane. The X-37B has been in flight for several years now, sometimes in staying in flight for up to 700 days and yet no one really knows what the government is doing with it.