China is developing a space plane that’ll go from runway to orbit and back down again at hypersonic speeds, reports Popular Science. When it is completed, the hypersonic space plane will boost the Asian country to the forefront of the aerospace industry — eclipsing the capabilities of the now retired Space Shuttle and competing with the cutting-edge British Skylon.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CATSC) is mining the best talent and technology in the aerospace field to create the next generation hybrid plane and spacecraft. The space plane will use a combined cycle engine that allows it to take off from an airport landing strip and blast into orbit.
The horizontal takeoff will be powered by a turbofan or turbojet engine, followed by a ramjet engine that will propel the plane upward toward through atmosphere. As the spacecraft reaches supersonic speeds, it then will switch to a scramjet engine that will push it through the “near space” portion of the atmosphere that lies between 20 kilometers to 100 kilometers above sea level. Once it is through this “near space” environment, the space plane finally will use its onboard rocket motors to maneuver itself into orbit.
Just like the U.S. space shuttle, the Chinese version will be reusable, allowing the astronauts to orbit, land, and take off again with only minimal repairs. This reusability will lower costs for the space program and allow Chinese astronauts to access Earth’s orbit more frequently. In a broadcast on China state television broadcaster CCTV, CASTC engineer Yang Yang also alluded to a possibility of using the space plane for tourism.
Because of its combined cycle engine, the space plane will propel itself into space much more gradually than a rocket engine-powered craft. This gentle launch reduces the physical strain on passengers, improving the “ease of access to space for untrained persons.”
China’s hypersonic shuttle is slated for development and testing over the next three to five years, with a target service date of 2030. The space plane is very similar to the British Skylon, which also will use a combined cycle engine and rocket motors to achieve hypersonic launches. Instead of a scramjet for hypersonic flight, the British version of the space plane will use pre-cooled jet engines. Both space planes are under development and are expected to begin flight testing in 2020 with deployment on or before 2030.