X-37B: China wants its own top secret space plane

Coming soon: China building its own X-37B? China, known for matching the United States step by step with military hardware that mimics American systems, wants to have its own space plane and two concepts have emerged.

One would be a reusable mini-ship like the US Space Force X-37Band the other would be something out of a science fiction novel – a space vehicle that is one kilometer long. The tiny space plane has been successfully tested, but it’s unclear whether it could make it to Earth orbit. The mega-spacecraft is part of a proposed five-year study and is likely still on the drawing board.

Chinese mini-craft is sub-orbital

Let’s take a look at the mini-craft first. It would be sub-orbital much like of the Galactic Virgin program for space tourists which is enhanced by a horizontally launched coupled ascent. Then it gives travelers the sense of microgravity and returns to earth soon after. Jeff Bezos backed by Amazon.com Blue Origin’s new Shepherd the vertically launched rocket is also sub-orbital.

He saw some tests

The Chinese mini-spaceplane actually tested vertical takeoff and horizontal landing in 2021 at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. It was also flight tested in 2020. The reusable spacecraft program is likely overseen by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force and developed by the state corporation Chinese Society of Aerospace Science and Technology. This entity builds rockets and drones for the PLA, so the reusable spacecraft is not intended for tourists and is likely designed for military purposes such as collecting space intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance data. .

keep it secret

No photos exist of the mini space plane because the PLA and China Aerospace don’t want to reveal any details to the prying eyes of the public or other countries. China says it’s “too advanced to be exposed.”

A mile-long space plane?

Mini-crafting may be doable, but the next project may never materialize. That’s because the plan is to make a spaceship a kilometer long. The mega-craft idea was part of a call for proposals from the National Natural Science Foundation from China that funds space projects in addition to other experiences of institutions and individuals.

Spread the word wide for ideas

Scientific American took a look on the foundation’s website for the project and noted that the entity is seeking “major strategic aerospace equipment for the future use of space resources, exploration of the mysteries of the universe, and long-term life in orbit “.

A small budget may not be enough to move the project forward

This appears to be low-budget feasibility research of only $2.3 million over five years. So the Chinese are looking for cheap new ideas. They want scientists and engineers to develop lightweight materials to send into space for the construction of the mega-ship.

You have to hand it over to the Chinese for their ambition, but they’ll need a lot more than a few million dollars for mega-craftsmanship. The International Space Station is just 109 meters wide, for example, and the ISS costs about 100 billion dollars to develop and costs approximately $4 billion a year to maintain. China didn’t even send its first astronaut into space until 2003.

Don’t count the Chinese

But we know that China is playing the long game with many of its technological developments. Brian Harvey, author of the book China in Space: The Great Leap ForwardTold BBC Science Focus it is not impossible for the Chinese to make this kind of leap.

In a test procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at Astrotech’s facility in Titusville, FL. (Courtesy picture)

“It’s about ambition, long-term thinking and instilling a purpose. Such long-term thinking doesn’t sit well with shorter-term Western thinking, which might mistakenly view this as propaganda,” Harvey said.

China’s strategy could be to lobby the military for the short-term mini-spacecraft and patiently wait for the mega-spaceplane to develop with ideas from universities and policy institutes. They know enough about the American X-37B to believe they can duplicate it, despite American efforts to keep some aspects of the record-breaking spacecraft classified. There is a real space race between China and the United States and the next five years will tell if either country can leap forward with new breakthroughs.

Now as 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.