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Don't Buy China's Hypersonic Head-Fake. Its Spaceplanes Are Racing Ahead.

In the past five years, China’s spaceplane development has accelerated, adding breakthroughs, tests, and new industry players.

After shocked U.S. leaders decried China’s August flight of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried a head fake, issuing a statement that actually referred to the July test of a reusable spaceplane. Yet even that misdirecting statement contained another attempt at misdirection. While the government described the spaceplane’s flight as a “routine” mission, it was in fact the first successful suborbital flight from launch to landing, a crucial step in the advancement towards a game-changing technology. 

Hypersonics may be getting more of the recent attention, but the spaceplane work is an area of both economic and national security significance. As BluePath Labs explored in a recent report for the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, China’s spaceplane efforts have skyrocketed since 2016, led not only by stalwarts of China’s aerospace industry, but by a growing number of private startups.  

Broadly, a spaceplane is a vehicle that combines characteristics of an airplane and a spacecraft, capable of flight both in the atmosphere and in space. Spaceplanes are launched either vertically on a rocket (like the Space Shuttle and its successor, Boeing’s X-37B) or horizontally from a carrier airplane (like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo), and land horizontally on a runway. The term “spaceplane” may refer to the orbiter or to the entire multistage configuration. Self-launching single-stage spaceplanes have been conceived but not developed.

As in the U.S., spaceplanes have been a point of focus for China’s space ambitions. The R&D agenda for China's space industry is set mainly by governing bodies like the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and by major industry players like China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and its chief rival, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). In 2018, CNSA’s space development plan called for a “low-cost, reusable spacecraft transportation system” by 2050. CASC’s “Space Transport Road Map'' set the more ambitious national goal of developing a reusable suborbital space vehicle for tourism by 2025, while CASIC declared that it would complete its own spaceplane by 2030.

China’s oldest known still-existing spaceplane is a secretive military project originating in the early 2000s: the Shenlong [神龙], produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group along with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a CASC subsidiary. Most known details about the Shenlong come from a single photograph leaked in 2007, showing a delta-wing robotic orbiter that somewhat resembles a miniature X-37B suspended under a Xian H-6 bomber. In 2016, the state-owned China Daily reported that the uncrewed Shenlong was to be launched into orbit from an H-6, had high on-orbit maneuverability, and could travel to any destination on Earth within an hour. These attributes would give the Shenlong great potential as an anti-access strategic weapon.

Arguably, China’s most high-profile spaceplane is CASIC’s Tengyun [腾云], a two-stage vehicle announced in 2016. Tengyun’s “parent” aircraft is a large hypersonic drone with a mode-shifting Turbo-Rocket Combined Engine, while the second-stage orbiter mounted on top is powered by a liquid-fueled rocket engine. The plane is to fly up to Mach 7 and carry crew, passengers, or cargo.

Other Chinese spaceplane projects exist at varying stages of development, from concepts to functional prototypes. CALT has conceived at least three spaceplanes since 2016 (possibly including the one tested this July), while others originated from aerospace startups founded in the last five years. Unlike the Shenlong, all of the newer projects, including Tengyun, are described in official sources as intended for commercial purposes.

A key advantage of spaceplanes is that their reusability can reduce the cost of space missions. Spaceplanes also have superior maneuverability in orbit, allowing them to perform a wider variety of missions and carry out multiple tasks per mission. In addition, horizontal-takeoff spaceplanes like Tengyun are particularly suited for space tourism and point-to-point transportation, because they can take off from ordinary airports and offer smoother rides than rockets. While hypersonic civil aviation is probably a long way off, China’s luxury space tourism market is projected to reach $401.6 million by 2027.

These very same attributes also interest the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Besides reducing mission costs, spaceplanes can remain and maneuver in orbit for long periods with minimal fuel expenditure, bolstering their operators’ ISR and communications capabilities. They conceivably could also be used to attack enemy satellites, aircraft, or ground targets from orbit, striking faster than ground-based missile systems and/or eluding standard defenses due to their speed and maneuverability. Thus, the line between spaceplanes and hypersonic orbital gliders grows thinner.

To be clear, none of China’s known spaceplane projects have yet been operationally fielded, and many of the aforementioned applications are not feasible with current technology. Still, China’s remarkable recent progress (including breakthroughs in key technologies such as combined engines) and the entry of private startups into the field portend rapid development in the near future. China’s spaceplane announcement may have been a misdirect from hypersonics, but the technology may soon become yet another battleground in U.S.-China economic and strategic competition.

Daniel Shats is a research analyst with BluePath Labs, a D.C. defense and tech-focused consulting firm.