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Lift-off for China’s mystery reusable spacecraft on service mission

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 05/08/2022 Zhang Tong
  • Unnamed space vehicle heads into orbit but it's not known how long it will be up there
  • Craft will carry out technical support for 'peaceful use of space'

China launched a reusable experimental spacecraft on Friday on a mission to test the technology and conduct an in-orbit service.

State news agency Xinhua said the mission would "provide technical support for the peaceful use of space".

The spacecraft lifted off on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia in the country's north.

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It is not known how long the unnamed spacecraft will stay in orbit or where it will return to Earth.

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China launched a similar reusable spacecraft in 2020 but that mission did not include in-orbit services - a series of operations by astronauts or machines to prolong the life of a spacecraft or improve its capacity.

The services can involve capturing a target for refuelling and repair or guiding a dangerous satellite on re-entry or to a graveyard orbit.

According to Professor Cai Yaxing with the National University of Defence Technology, satellites have a high economic value and long working life but are difficult to maintain.

"Even with more reliable designs, there are still a large number of satellites that fail to work or have a shortened life due to various reasons after launch," Cai wrote in a paper in the domestic peer-reviewed journal Aerospace Control and Application in June.

Cai said that in many cases, such as solar panel deployment failures, only small in-orbit fixes were required to "save the satellite and obtain significant economic benefits".

With the help of AI, an in-orbit service spacecraft could plan routes and change orbit parameters by itself, forming a "service sequence" with up to 10 target satellites in high orbit, Cai's team suggested.

Chinese space authorities have not offered any details about the spacecraft's engine or design but there is speculation that engineers had to improve the rocket engine to meet the reuse requirement.

Given the Long March 2F rocket's payload capacity of 8 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, some observers say the spacecraft may be similar to the X-37B space plane built by Boeing.

While the spacecraft lifted off on a rocket, it might return to the ground with the help of second ignition or paragliding.

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Spacefaring powers are in a race to develop reusable spacecraft, with the best known examples being SpaceX's Dragon, Nasa's Orion MPCV, and Russia's Orel.

But reusable vehicles are not always economical. From 1981, the US developed six space shuttles in 30 years at a total cost of nearly US$200 billion, or eight times the original budget.

Such shuttle programmes also involve huge amounts of labour and resources to maintain and test the vehicles for each mission.

China's reusable spacecraft is much lighter than the 80 tonne space shuttle, which could help cut costs.

According to one estimate by the China Academy of Space Technology last year, a Chinese reusable spacecraft could cost 1.5 billion yuan (US$222 million), or 50 per cent more than a disposable model.

In 2017, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation launched the Tengyun project to develop reusable space transport with hypersonic technology.

The aim is to build a space plane that can travel at least five times the speed of sound and take 10 passengers to near-Earth orbit by 2030.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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