HomeExpansionismThe Race for Space Supremacy: China's Reusable Spacecraft Technology

The Race for Space Supremacy: China’s Reusable Spacecraft Technology

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After a groundbreaking 9-month journey in orbit, China’s reusable uncrewed space vehicle returned to Earth on Monday morning, as announced by the Chinese state media. This successful mission is significant in China’s progress in space exploration and technology, particularly in developing their reusable spacecraft technology.

The development of reusable spacecraft technology by China could have significant military implications, particularly in the realm of space-based warfare. With the ability to launch and recover spacecraft, China could gain a strategic advantage in areas such as military reconnaissance and satellite deployment. This could allow China to monitor sensitive areas of interest, gather intelligence, or deploy military payloads into space.

One potential use for the Chinese reusable spacecraft is to deploy small satellites or other payloads into orbit. These could include communications satellites, navigation systems, or other types of sensors that could be used for military or government purposes. China’s space authorities have not released any pictures or technical data on the craft, which has raised suspicions from some experts that it could be equipped with advanced imaging and sensing equipment to gather intelligence.

The Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the largest space defense contractor in China, has hailed the classified mission as a “complete success” and a crucial milestone in the country’s research on the technology. According to the company, reusable spacecraft will provide a more convenient and cost-effective way for peaceful space exploration.

However, very little information has been released about the spacecraft, which first flew for two days in orbit in September 2020. China’s space authorities have not released any pictures or technical data on the craft, raising suspicions from some experts that it could be equipped with advanced imaging and sensing equipment to gather intelligence or monitor sensitive areas of interest.

Another possible use of this secretive spacecraft is to deploy small satellites or other payloads into orbit. These could include communications satellites, navigation systems, or other types of sensors that could be used for military or government purposes. Based on the payload capacity of the Long March 2F rocket that launched the reusable spacecraft, experts suggest that it is likely similar in size and design to the US Air Force’s Boeing X-37B.

At around 9 meters long and 3 meters high, the X-37B has a mass of around 5,000 kg and is designed to fit inside the payload fairing of a standard rocket. The US spacecraft has a flattened wedgelike body with a wingspan of about 4.6 meters, ending in angled wingtips to give it a slightly boomerang-like appearance. Its wings are angled at about 45 degrees and swept back towards the tail of the spacecraft. This streamlined design allows the X-37B to operate efficiently in space while fitting within the constraints of existing launch vehicles.

Since 2011, China and the United States have been racing to develop smaller, unmanned reusable spacecraft after the discontinuation of the space shuttle program for various reasons, including high costs and safety concerns. Uncrewed spacecraft are cheaper and more efficient to design and operate since they do not require life support systems or other accommodations. Their smaller size also means that they can be launched using smaller rockets, which are generally less expensive than larger launch vehicles, like those used for the space shuttle. This reusable spacecraft technology could revolutionize the way space travel is conducted, providing more efficient and cost-effective means to explore space.

Extended periods in orbit can also add further complications, such as maintaining the spacecraft’s power supply, which requires advanced solar panels or other generation systems that can operate reliably in space. Keeping the spacecraft in lower-Earth orbit for an extended period also requires precise control over its trajectory and orientation, which can be affected by atmospheric drag, gravitational forces from other celestial bodies, and other factors, including solar winds. Engineers must carefully design the spacecraft’s propulsion system to ensure that it can make the small adjustments to its trajectory needed to maintain a stable orbit or to approach a target, depending on its mission.

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