China’s ‘reusable’ space plane demonstrates military utility

Special to, May 31, 2023


By Richard Fisher

On May 8, Chinese state media reported that China’s “reusable spacecraft” had completed its second orbital mission, this time spending 276 days in space.

Xinhua also commented, “The complete success of this test marks an important breakthrough in my country’s research on reusable spacecraft technology, which will provide a more convenient and inexpensive way to and from the peaceful use of space in the future.”

A possible partial image of China’s small spaceplane emerged on Chinese webpages on May 25. It may have a “blunt” nose area that also provides lift. / Chinese internet

However, China’s spaceplane is a classic “dual use” Chinese space program.

While it can perform civil missions, the Chinese spaceplane is also designed to perform military missions for the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF), which controls almost all of China’s space platforms and would lead the PLA’s conduct of warfare in outer space.

The American company LeoLabs, which has a global network of phased array radars (West Australia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Texas, Alaska, and soon, Argentina) and provides satellite tracking services to governments and private companies, has offered comments on maneuvers undertaken by the Chinese spaceplane.

On April 21, on its twitter page LeoLabs stated, “On April 13, we detected a large maneuver by Object 53357, the PRC’s experimental spaceplane. This maneuver resulted in a decrease in altitude from 613 – 355 km.”

That same day LeoLabs further noted, “Since the spaceplane launched in August 2022, we’ve observed multiple large maneuvers raising the object’s altitude — as well as repeated deployments, formation flying, and docking of a sub-satellite OBJECT J (NORAD ID 54218).”

Then on May 8 LeoLabs on its twitter page stated, “We’ve determined that the Test Spacecraft2 has propulsive capability and engaged in proximity operations with Object J, including what appeared to be at least two and possibly three capture/docking operations.”

What this means is that China’s spaceplane conducted dockings with “Object J,” likely another Chinese experimental satellite, which leads to the conclusion that China’s spaceplane could also perform co-orbital interception missions against U.S. satellites and spacecraft.

China’s space plane program extends back to the late 1980s, when the Chinese aviation industry proposed that China begin its manned space program by building large U.S.-like Space Shuttle spacecraft primarily to perform military missions.

This was overruled by China’s rocket industry, which correctly advised that a Space Shuttle would be too costly and take too long to put Chinese in space, whereas single-use large rockets could perform this mission faster and more efficiently.

Full Text . . . . Current Edition . . . . Subscription Information

You must be logged in to post a comment Login