Reusable plane project aims for low orbit
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, a major defense contractor, plans to produce a reusable aerospace plane and put it into commercial flight by 2030.
The plane will take off from and land on a conventional runway like a jetliner and will be capable of flying in near space or even into outer space. The low-cost aircraft will have high-quality safety features and will be used to fulfill a wide range of operations such as space tourism, astronaut commuting, satellite deployment, cargo transportation and emergency rescue, the State-owned defense conglomerate said in an introduction board in front of a scale model of the new craft, which is on display at the 2021 China Space Conference.
Generally, near space refers to the region of Earth's atmosphere that lies between 20 and 100 kilometers above sea level. It comprises the altitudes above where commercial airliners fly but below orbiting satellites.
The company said it has conducted a key flight test by a conceptual demonstration prototype to verify the propulsion shift mechanism between ramjet and rocket engine. It did not disclose details about the test.
Engineers will strive to finish the research and development of all major technologies before 2026 and then build prototypes for flight tests, the company said, noting the aerospace plane is scheduled to become commercially ready by 2030.
Each plane will be able to take personnel or cargo with a combined weight of 2 metric tons to a low-Earth orbit about 300 km above the ground and could be used for 100 flights, according to CASIC.
Wei Yiyin, CASIC's deputy general manager, told attendees at the main forum of the 2021 China Space Conference in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on Saturday that the government has listed reusable aerospace transportation systems as one of its key research priorities.
Compared with carrier rockets and traditional spacecraft, an aerospace plane will have lower operational costs and a shorter preparation time, and it will be easier to maintain and operate, he said.
However, he added, designers and engineers will need to resolve some technical obstacles, including managing its sophisticated propulsion system and developing aerodynamic designs suitable for ultrafast flight.
Internationally, researchers in the United States, Germany, Japan and Britain have been designing aerospace vehicles for many years.
"The rapidly rising demand in commercial satellite launch services and space tourism offers a promising market for the aerospace plane. Moreover, it can realize the aspiration for ultrafast air travel－passengers will be able to get to any place on the globe in just a few hours in the future," said Wang Yanan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine.