China Launches New Space Plane – A Potential Rival to US X-37

A new space plane has been launched by China, according to NASA. The launch had been in preparation since March and occurred on 3 September, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center using a Long March-2F/T rocket.

The vehicle is believed to be broadly equivalent to the American X-37B space plane, which has been in service since 2010. However, details of capabilities – or even any official pictures – have not been revealed and it remains to be seen if the new Chinese spacecraft matches the X-37s multi-year orbital capabilities.

X-37 (USAF)

NASA reports that Chinese media said of the launch that:

“…the test spacecraft will be in orbit for a period of time before returning to the domestic scheduled landing site. During this period, it will carry out reusable technology verification as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”

The Chinese have apparently been experimenting with the concept of developing a space plane for several years. In 2007, images were published in state media of a winged spacecraft mounted under an H-6K bomber. This was the first public acknowledgment that China was trying to develop a reusable winged space system similar to the X-37.

Photos of what is believed to be Project 863-706, circa 2007 (Chinese state media)

Codenamed ‘Project 863-706’, the Shenlong Project had its first launch scheduled between 2006 and 2010. In fact, Shenlong was possibly a technology development program for the actual space-worthy vehicle which has just been launched.

Though it’s capacities and mission are classified, as are those of its American counterpart, this launch gives further demonstration that China’s space-based aspirations are still very much a priority for the country and that it remains committed to matching the United States.

With space being recognised more and more as the next critical theatre of military interest, this new space race will surely only see increased investment and focus as various nations jockey for position.