China Is Developing a “Breathable” Multipurpose Space Plane
China recently announced the development of a reusable and multipurpose space plane is underway to rival the Boeing X-37. This unmanned aircraft can serve a variety of functions for both tourists and defensive use. Plus, this plane will include revolutionary hydrogen fuel technology that “breathes” during midflight. Cool!
China Announces Multipurpose Space Plane
President of the Third Academy of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), Zhang Hongwen, made the announcement in early March on China Central Television (CCTV). This multipurpose space plane is much different than traditional rockets because it will be reusable. It’s still in the early stages of development and the details are highly classified.
Although very similar to the Boeing X-37 (CCTV actually made the comparison themselves), this space plane will include a few key differences. For one thing, it includes two planes: one larger aircraft to carry the smaller one. Once the duo reaches a certain distance into space, the smaller plane will dismount. The base plane will then return to earth for another launch.
The plane will serve a variety of military, research, and civilian functions. Zhang says it can carry tourists into space, launch satellites, conduct emergency rescue missions, send supplies to the space station, and just provide general cheap and fast launching services.
Military expert Song Zhongping had different ideas in mind. Song was quick to point out the project’s impressive defensive possibilities. In fact, he says this multipurpose space plane will be able to intercept ballistic missiles, conduct precision strikes, and protect from foreign space devices or aircraft.
Tourists AND precision strikes? Go big or go home, right?
Breathable Hydrogen Fuel
Another big difference between China’s space plane and the Boeing X-37 is the engine technology. The X-37 uses Russian-supplied boosters derived from Soviet-era rocket technology: RD-180s which run on kerosene and liquid oxygen. (Just another reason sanctions stunt growth and development for everyone.)
China plans to use hydrogen fuel by “breathing” air from the atmosphere. Technology is still underway, but theoretically, this works by pulling in oxygen, liquifying it, and running on the liquefied oxygen and hydrogen. An expert speaking to Global Times on the condition of anonymity said top speeds could reach 22 times that of the speed of sound.
If this all sounds very impressive (and almost unbelievable), that’s because it is. China announced the project, codenamed the “Tengyun Project,” in 2016 and only recently released this current development plan.
If you’re still skeptical, consider that China announced 2030 as the launch date. A lot of the technology they plan to incorporate is probably still in the research phase. In fact, the final round of technology won’t be complete until 2025.
In addition to this space plane, China is also developing a near-space solar drone for weather observation and communication functions.