This year China has been firmly establishing its place in the space race, by unveiling the world’s largest radio telescope, launching a space lab in preparation for a space station and unveiling plans to send a mission to Mars.
Now it seems the country also has its eyes on commercial spaceflight.
Designs of a new space plane, which could fly up to 20 passengers to the edge of space each day, have been revealed.
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing designed the plane, and presented its ideas at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico last month,New Scientist revealed.
China’s plane would be a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, the magazine reported.
‘The vehicle will take off vertically like a rocket and land on the runway automatically without any ground or on-board intervention,’ said team leader Han Pengxin.
The researchers presented two ideas.
The first design weighs in at 10 tonnes and has a wingspan of 19.6 feet (6 metres).
This smaller version should be able to fly five people to an altitude of 62 miles (100 km), where space officially begins, letting passengers experience two minutes of weightlessness.
The second design was for a scaled up 100-tonne version, with a 40 foot (12 metre) wingspan, could fly 20 people to 80 miles (130 km), giving four minutes of weightlessness.
‘The test flights will be finished in the next two years, because almost all of the ground tests have been finished and all the subsystems of the test vehicle worked very well,’ Han Pengxin said.
Han predicted a ride will cost between $200,000 and $250,000 (£160,552 and £200,690).
But others are sceptical.
Roger Launius from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, told New Scientist the space plane is an ‘interesting initiative’ but he said the four-page paper presented at the IAC did not include enough technical detail.
‘More and more common persons are interested in the experience of space flight,’ the team wrote in their IAC2016 paper, adding that the project is ‘very attractive’ to ‘bosses and businessmen’.
But China will have stiff competition, as many companies are planning to crack commercial space flight first.
Many thought it was out of the game following 2014’s fatal crash, but Virgin Galactic made a comeback this year with the launch of its new craft to take tourists into space.
Richard Branson’s company came one step closer to getting back into the space race after its new SpaceShipTwo craft, called VSS Unity, completed its first test flight in September.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has managed to land four rockets from space back on Earth, three on sea and one on land, while Blue Origin’s New Shepard successfully completed a third launch and vertical landing in April this year.
Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin expects to begin crewed test flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard vehicle next year and begin flying paying passengers in 2018, Bezos told reporters last month.
Bezos’ remarks, made during the first ever media tour of the Blue Origin manufacturing facility, marked the first time the billionaire founder of Amazon.com had put a target date on the start of the commercial space flights Blue Origin is developing.
‘We’ll probably fly test pilots in 2017, and if we’re successful then I’d imagine putting paying astronauts on in 2018,’ Bezos said at the sprawling plant south of Seattle.
The company expects to build six New Shepard vehicles, which are designed to autonomously fly six passengers to more than 62 miles (100 km) above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the planet set against the blackness of space.
Reusable rockets would cut costs and waste in the space industry, which currently loses millions of dollars in jettisoned machinery after each launch.
Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency are also developing similar technology and are in testing stages.
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