What Makes China’s Special Space Plane Stand Out?

China’s ambitious space plane program, known as Tengyun (cloud rider), is aimed at filling a gap in low Earth orbit operations. The Chinese space plane, also known as Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi, is an experimental, reusable unmanned spacecraft in its early stages. It has the potential to fly from runway to orbit and return to Earth at hypersonic speeds, boosting China to the forefront of the aerospace industry.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is recruiting top talent and using the best technology in the country’s aerospace field to support Tengyun. The orbital test vehicle has only been known for three known missions. The first was a two-day flight on September 4, 2020, under heavy secrecy, marking a significant breakthrough in China’s research into reusable spacecraft technology. The second trip was 276 days in orbit, conducting materials exposure and thermal control coating tests, possibly assessing candidate radiation-shielding materials.

Longevity of flight is a unique attribute for this type of space plane. The US has two X-37B vehicles with their first flights measuring more than 200 days, while one flight set new records for duration, staying in orbit for over 900 days in May 2020. The shorter duration of the Chinese space plane’s flights may indicate a special role in testing hypersonic technologies or high-velocity atmospheric reentry activities, besides robotics. One of the flights involved China releasing and recapturing an object, raising questions about space plane testing.

China’s Tengyun space plane is a unique and functioning spacecraft that could potentially perform robotic repairs or deploy smaller spacecraft for space-based defense systems over a multiyear period. This could pose challenges due to the international community’s current arms control and space law requirements. China’s space ambition is significant for the future space economy and security, as a reusable space plane is advantageous and cost-effective. Some argue that the Tengyun is in competition with America’s Boeing X-37B space plane, but the Tengyun appears to be more dynamic in its capabilities and potential. If the space plane is part of China’s first co-orbital anti-satellite platform, there will be arms control and other international legal problems.

Co-orbital anti-satellite platforms require the ability to adjust their orbits to move close to targeted satellites, disrupting, damaging, or destroying them through various means. China has conducted tests before examining debris fields. Overall, China is making significant strides in its Tengyun space plane program, demonstrating its longevity and capabilities across various domains, including peaceful space use and potential negative possibilities.

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