China plans to launch a futuristic, re-usable ‘space plane’ for the first time in 2020, according to Chinese media reports.
The vehicle is designed to carry heavy payloads into orbit more than 20 times over its lifetime and will be capable of daily launches.
Unlike many spacecraft, the new vehicle will have wings and launch into the air from a runway like a traditional aircraft, the reports claim.
According to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), as reported by state news outlet China Daily, the reusable spacecraft will launch in the next three years.
Based on a number of reports, the spaceraft will take off from the runway and then switch to ramjet propulsion when higher in the atmosphere.
The vehicle will use rocket motors to exit Earth’s atmosphere and move into the planet’s orbit.
It will use its wings to help it land horizontally, vastly reducing the time needed to recycle its components and get it back into orbit, the CASC said.
The reusable launch vehicle can carry large payloads into orbit, return to the earth and be reused many times, said Chen Hongbo, director of the research and development centre at the CASC’s China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.
He said the craft will combine its first and second stages together, meaning it will work differently to the US-made reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
The new vehicle’s two stages will be recoverable, while a Falcon 9 can only recover its first stage.
China’s reusable craft is designed to be used over 20 times, Mr Hongbo said.
The CASC statement says that, initially, the cost for each launch will be cut 80 per cent using the new craft, with savings rising to 90 per cent in future.
‘The reusable launch vehicle will mainly provide service for a 300 to 500 kilometer [185 to 310-mile) high orbit,’ Mr Hongbo said.
‘It can meet the demands of fast, reliable and low-cost space transportation in the future.
‘For example, it can deliver astronauts and goods to a space station, provide a launch service for military and civilian purposes and even serve space tourism.’
China’s reusable rocket programme has been in development for a decade, but this is the first time officials have put a firm date on its launch.
In June, a key official with the state corporation developing the vehicle said significant progress had been made.
‘Currently, China is developing its own reusable earth-to-orbit space vehicles that can take off and land horizontally,’ said Liu Shiquan, vice director of the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation.
‘We have already finished several crucial ground tests for engines and [other key components], yielding remarkable achievements.’
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