Much has changed since the last space age. Unlike the times of Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury and Apollo, the current era is not characterized by two superpowers constantly vying for supremacy and superiority. More than ever, it’s about international collaboration, bringing space agencies together to advance shared exploration and science goals. Likewise, the private space sector has become a major participant, providing everything from launch services and commercial payloads to satellite constellations and crews.
But in some ways, old habits die hard. Since the turn of the century, China has emerged as a major power in space, even becoming a direct competitor to NASA’s manned space programs. In recent years, China has been developing a reusable autonomous spaceplane designed to compete with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Known as Shenlong (“divine dragon”), this spaceplane recently completed its second test flight after spending 276 days in orbit. Although few details are known, Chinese state media company Xinua said the flight was a breakthrough for China’s space program.
The Chinese Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi (CSSHQ) reusable experimental spaceplane has been a mystery since its discovery. On its final test flight (CSSHQ 1), the spaceplane launched on September 4, 2020 and spent a short two days in orbit. For its second flight (CSSHQ-2), the Chinese spaceplane took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on August 4, 2022 aboard a Long March-2F/T rocket (CZ-2) and reportedly landed again in Juiquan on Monday May 8th.
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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flight line March 30, 2010 at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida. Photo credit: USAF
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency issued a statement shortly after the spaceplane landed (reportedly in Jiuquan). The spaceplane’s manufacturer, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), shared the Xinhua statement again via Chinese social media platform Weixin:
“The reusable test spacecraft successfully launched by our country at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center successfully returned to the scheduled landing site on May 8 after flying in orbit for 276 days. The complete success of this test represents a major breakthrough in my country’s research into reusable spacecraft technology, which will provide a more convenient and cost-effective way for the peaceful uses of outer space in the future.”
No details were given about the mission, the spacecraft, or the operations being conducted in orbit. However, SpaceNews correspondent Andrew Jones summarized the CCSHQ’s activities during the test flight and summarized them in a recent article. “The spacecraft performed numerous small and much larger orbital maneuvers during its flight, with adjustments made in recent weeks in preparation for landing,” he wrote. “The landing may have taken place at the Lop Nur military base in Xinjiang. Information on the spacecraft’s orbit indicates that an orbit over the facility at 0020 UTC provided the opportunity for a landing.”
As Jones wrote back in August 2022, the spacecraft also sent a small satellite into orbit 90 days after its flight. While the purpose and nature of this satellite are unknown, tracking data obtained by the US Space Force (USSF) indicated that the small satellite was in very close proximity to the spacecraft. Though this flight represented a major step in China’s research into reusable spacecraft technology, it pales in comparison to the achievements of the X-37B, which has conducted six test flights since April 2010.
During its last flight (OTV-6), the OTV spent over nine hundred days in space and even conducted a number of scientific experiments in orbit. Like the activities of CCSHQ, the details of OTV’s flights remained top secret. However, various sources have confirmed that goals include developing orbital reconnaissance vehicles for military use and testing reusable spacecraft technologies, hypersonic engines and autonomous guidance systems. As for reusability, China is developing spacecraft as part of a larger program, including a super-heavy launch system similar to SpaceX’s Starship.
The concept was unveiled by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) in April 2021 during the sixth annual Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition (aka “National Space Day”) in Nanjing. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) is also pursuing its own reusable spaceplane, known as Tengyun (“Cloud Rider”). According to a video released by CASIC during the 2021 Zhuhai Air Show (see above), this vehicle would be part of a two-stage launch system based on an air launch vehicle (similar to Virgin Galactic).
This latest development shows the progress China has made in recent years. In terms of space station technology, robotic exploration of the moon (the Chang’e program) and Mars (the Tianwen-1 orbiter and the Zhurong rover), and human spaceflight, China has become a global powerhouse. Later this decade, China plans to send the first taikonauts to the moon and establish the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which will be in direct competition with NASA’s Artemis program. They hope to send the first manned missions to Mars in 2033, just as NASA is hoping to do the same.
It looks like the modern space age (for better or for worse) has some of that old “space race” energy in it!
Further reading: SpaceNews