China Launches ‘Reusable’ Sub-Orbital Space Vehicle

Concept illustration of China's Tiangong space station. Image credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

Chinese demonstration vehicle reaches sub-orbital altitude, then lands at airstrip as China looks to develop reusable space launch system

A Chinese space contractor said said it has conducted a test flight of a resusable sub-orbital vehicle, as the country seeks to develop a reusable space transportation system.

The vehicle launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre on Friday and later landed at an airport about 800 kilometres away at Alxa League in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) said.

The company provided no image of the craft and didn’t specify the altitude it had reached, the flight duration or the propulsion systems used.

But it indicated the vehicle took off vertically and landed horizontally, similar to the US Space Shuttle.

US Air Force's experimental X-37B spaceplane on landing strip. Image credit: US Air Force
US Air Force’s experimental X-37B spaceplane on landing strip. Image credit: US Air Force

‘Reusable spacecraft’

The experiment follows the September 2020 test flight of a Chinese “reusable experimental spacecraft”, which orbited for several days, released a small transmitting payload and later landed horizontally.

The vehicle is believed to be a reusable spaceplane concept, although to date no images of it or other details have emerged.

CASC also developed that vehicle and stated the new vehicle could be used as the first stage of a reusable space transportation system.

The company’s remarks suggest the two vehicles could be combined into a fully reusable transportation system for reaching Earth orbit.

China indicated in 2017 it aimed to test a reusable spaceplane in 2020.

Vehicle tests

At the time Chen Hongbo of CASC’s China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) told China’s Science and Technology Daily that the reusable craft would be capable of carrying both crew and payloads and would have the characteristics of an aircraft and a spacecraft.

CALT was indicated as the developer of last week’s sub-orbital reusable demonstration vehicle.

The concept is somewhat different from the US Air Force’s classified X-37B spaceplane, an unmanned vehicle that is currently carrying out its sixth mission in orbit.

The vehicle, developed by Boeing, has been undergoing orbital tests since 2010 and spent 780 days in orbit on its fifth mission before landing automatically. It launches at the tip of a rocket and lands in plane mode at an airstrip.

Chinese space station

Virgin Galactic recently carried out the first demonstration of its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, which carried several passengers to the edge of space and back.

China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), another large state-owned enterprise, is also working on a spaceplane called Tengyun, which uses a horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing system.

China is currently building a space station called Tiangong and launched the first module, called Tianhe, at the end of April.

The country has also landed a rover on the surface of Mars, called Zhurong, which is currently transmitting images and data back to Earth.