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Experimental space plane aces test flight

By Zhao Lei | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-07-20 10:24
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China's reusable aerospace plane, which was tested on Friday, offers great potential in a wide range of businesses, according to industry observers.

"It will be able to do many different things: space tourism, transporting astronauts, satellite deployment, cargo transportation and emergency rescues," said Wang Yanan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine.

"Compared to rockets and space shuttles, this new vehicle is lower cost, requires less preparation and is more flexible. It will also permit ordinary people to take short trips into space or make ultrafast intercontinental journeys at an affordable price."

Wang said that once the new craft enters service, it will greatly reduce the complexity and cost of space missions, likely making space tourism as easy and convenient as flying.

Wu Peixin, an aerospace industry analyst in Beijing, said that commercial space enterprises will welcome a reusable aerospace plane because it will be technically and economically suited to placing small satellites in low orbit, an expensive process using rockets.

It could also help in space station operations by transporting crew members and material between the station and Earth.

"However, developing this kind of vehicle is never easy as it will have to fly in the atmosphere and outer space, which requires an aerodynamic design and propulsion system capable of adapting to different operational environments and modes," Wu added.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the country's major space contractor, said the maiden flight of a reusable suborbital prototype took place in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region on Friday.

Developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, a CASC subsidiary, the unnamed prototype was carried into space by a rocket launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and flew for a while on its own before making a conventional landing at the Alshaa Right Banner Badanjilin Airport in southwest Inner Mongolia. The test flight was successful, the State-owned conglomerate said in a statement, adding that the cutting-edge vehicle incorporates aviation and space technologies.

The test laid a solid foundation for China to develop a reusable space transportation system, the statement said. It did not give details of the event.

It was the second time CASC, a leading domestic supplier of rockets and ballistic missiles, has announced developments in its reusable space vehicle project.

In September, it tested an experimental reusable craft at Jiuquan. It did not publish detailed information, photos or videos of the test.

China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, another space contractor, is also working on a reusable space plane, which it plans to put into commercial use by 2030. The company said that it conducted a key test of a conceptual demonstration prototype to verify the propulsion shift mechanism between its ramjet and rocket engines.

In June 2018, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced that its engineers were "designing a new spacecraft to send anyone able to pay $200,000 to $250,000 on a suborbital journey to enjoy a magnificent view of the stars, and experience weightlessness".

It said the reusable spacecraft is expected to enter service around 2028 and will look like a fixed-wing aircraft without a vertical stabilizer-upright tail fin-and will be propelled by a rocket engine. It will take off vertically like a rocket but make a horizontal landing on a runway like a plane.

With a floor area of 10 square meters, the spacecraft will be able to carry a maximum of 20 travelers to an altitude of more than 100 kilometers, about 10 times the cruising altitude of a commercial jetliner, designers said. That would take future passengers to the Karman Line, the globally recognized boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and the edge of space.

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