China is reportedly developing a reusable space vehicle that could launch atop a rocket and land like an airplane. If true – and if the development produces an operational vehicle – China will join the U.S. in the exclusive club of nations with so-called “space planes.”
Reusable space vehicles offer big advantages over other spacecraft. Able to maneuver in orbit carrying a deployable payload, they combine the qualities of a rocket and a satellite. Being re-usable, they can be cheaper than “throw away” vehicles. And landing like an airplane, they can gently return delicate equipment to Earth.
The U.S. Space Shuttle, recently retired, was the first operational space plane. The Soviet Union developed its own version of the Shuttle, but never placed it into service. As a partial replacement for the manned Shuttle, the U.S. Air Force introduced two copies of the Boeing-made X-37B robotic space plane that’s barely a quarter the length of the Shuttle but cheaper.
The Air Force claims to use the X-37B strictly for orbital experiments, but it could also perform surveillance missions, resupply the International Space Station or even sneak up on and inspect spacecraft of other nations.
In 2008, a robotic vehicle outwardly similar to the X-37B was photographed under the wing of a Chinese bomber. (Both the U.S. and China frequently use bombers to launch experimental spacecraft.) In January 2011, the Chinese vehicle, reportedly named “Divine Dragon,” flew on its first atmospheric test flight.
The timing was noteworthy, according to Andrew Erickson, a U.S. Naval War College analyst who has written the most in-depth assessment of the Divine Dragon. “The test flight announcement from a Sha’anxi TV station came within a month of the U.S. X-37B orbital vehicle’s return to earth after its first test flight and come almost simultaneously with China’s test flight of its J-20 fighter prototype,” Erickson wrote. “This reflects China’s growing technical proficiency in the aerospace sector.”
If the Divine Dragon follows the same development path as the X-37B, it will ultimately deploy into orbit atop a conventional launch system such as China’s Long March rocket. The X-37B’s relatively small size – roughly the size of a passenger van – limits it to modest payloads. Divine Dragon, being even smaller, will have only limited utility.
But space planes can be scaled upward: Boeing has drawn up blueprints for a larger X-37C, and there’s no reason the Divine Dragon couldn’t also be enlarged in order to perform a wider range of missions.