A secret, rural experimental launch has insiders comparing a Chinese craft to the X-37B.
A small, reusable craft with no crew makes sense by itself and as a stepping stone to larger crewed craft.
China reportedly had a successful test launch of its mysterious new reusable spacecraft last week. The South China Morning Post reports the extreme secrecy around the launch is to protect and cushion cutting-edge technology, and the newspaper shares a source on the scene who suggests the new craft is something like the U.S.’s experimental X-37B spaceplane, shown above.
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China has revved up its space game in the last decade. Just this year, the country announced an engine design that could power a reusable spacecraft and launched its first rover to Mars. And while China is famously secretive about all of its technology, when it comes to spacecraft and defense technology, it’s certainly not alone.
Secrecy helps to keep technology proprietary, of course, but it also helps to avoid public embarrassment if prototypes fail in front of the press. Failure and iteration are critical to scientific inquiry, but often harder for the public—and funds-allocating government bodies—to contextualize.
What do insiders mean when they say the Chinese craft is like the X-37B? Well, the experimental U.S. spacecraft, technically a “spaceplane,” has spent about 900 days in space—an estimated 780 in its previous (and first) mission and over 100 more since launching again in May. Boeing designed the X-37B partly to try to correct flaws in the Space Shuttle program, which planned to lower costs and increase reusability, but fell short of both goals due to high maintenance costs and times.
So it follows that the extreme logical opposite keeps just a few qualities, like reusability and the idea of a “plane” that launches vertically and later lands on a runway. The X-37B then stays in space for years at a time, without a crew and therefore without the weight and volume of crew quarters, life support, and more. With a “pickup truck”-like cargo area, the X-37B can carry entire experiments and technologies to and from space for testing.
What does this all mean for the mystery-shrouded new Chinese spacecraft? We can only speculate, but it wouldn’t be surprising if China is adding a similar long-term, uncrewed orbiting craft that can land and be reused. China has working launchers and, now, a complement on its way to Mars. Even a technologically cutting-edge spacecraft is much easier and cheaper to make than the same craft with capacity for humans and the energy and supplies they require.
China put its first astronaut into space in 2003, which sounds late, but still represents just the third nation to do so. An unmanned, shuttle-like reusable craft is a great stopover point on the road to developing, for example, the next generation of reusable human spaceflight for trips into orbit and then to the moon, or even to Mars.
The X-37B is often called a “smaller Space Shuttle” in design and features. Could it be a functional scale model as the world’s powers make plans to explore space? We’ll find out soon.
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