China’s spaceplane returns: is this a new weapon in their counterspace arsenal?
by Ajey Lele
|There is a view that China’s spaceplane has been designed and developed on the same lines as that of the US spaceplane, the Boeing X-37B.|
During 2017, Xinhua reported that China proposed to launch its reusable spacecraft during 2020. They had quoted this information based on the declaration from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. It was even mentioned that such systems would be useful for transporting (and getting back) people or payloads into orbit. Apparently, such a project was planned since a spaceplane is a good option to improve the frequency of launch in a cost-effective fashion. Yet, is this agenda for developing a spaceplane the only reason for the project, or is there something more to it?
All over the world, various agencies are working towards developing reusable spacecraft technologies. In the field of space tourism, both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have flown reusable suborbital vehicles. SpaceX is already taking astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) using reusable spacecraft launched by rockets with reused boosters. States like China have programs like Shenzhou for crewed missions to the Tiangong space station. This station is expected to maintain itself as a permanently crewed space station. Incidentally, China's Shenzhou-16 is slated to be launched in the coming days to take three astronauts to the space station.
The Chinese commercial space launch corporation called CAS Space (Guangzhou Zhongke Aerospace Exploration Technology Co., Ltd.) is involved towards the development of commercial space launch vehicle for suborbital travel. This company was established during 2018 and has already performed the first successful launch of a four-stage solid-fuel launch vehicle called Kinetica 1, in July 2022. In August 2021, the company had announced their intention for developing a suborbital space tourism vehicle called ZK-6. This vehicle, which is presently under development, is anticipated to be comparable to Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket. China’s space tourism agenda is likely to become a reality around 2025. This means that China has strategies in place for undertaking orbital and suborbital human travel. China is planning to undertake crewed Moon missions by 2030. China is also working with Russia on building a lunar research base. With all those efforts, it seems unlikely that China would convert its spaceplane project for human travel, at least in the foreseeable future.
There is a view that China’s spaceplane has been designed and developed on the same lines as that of the US spaceplane, the Boeing X-37B. The US spaceplane has undertaken six missions so far. The first mission, which lasted for 224 days, was launched in April 2010, while the sixth mission, which launched in May 2020, stayed in space for 908 days. For the last 13 years, the US has been totally silent about the purpose behind undertaking these missions. The only information available is the photographs of X-37B. Another input given by the US agencies is that, during the 2020 mission, one small satellite called FalconSat-8 was deployed, which contained five experimental payloads designed by NASA and the US Air Force.
There is no official information available in regards to China’s reusable spaceplane. In regards to the US intentions behind launching the spaceplane missions, there has been significant speculation for years. Since the Chinese project is also on somewhat similar lines, there could be several commonalities behind the purpose for such missions.
|The mystery surrounding the real purpose for spaceplane missions raises doubts about their actual intentions. Could such vehicles be developed and tested for undertaking a space-based anti-satellite strike, or they are meant for undertaking high-altitude surveillance?|
In regards to the US X-37B, initial expectations were that the project would be a replacement to the retired Space Shuttle program. However, it has never even been used even for carrying cargo to ISS. To argue that the US and China are using such missions to showcase reusable space capabilities may not be correct. Both these states have advanced space programs and there is no need for them to use such missions only for the purposes of the so-called demonstration of that capability.
There could be experiments on board those vehicles for testing space worthiness of various materials. Typically, it could be argued that such reusable autonomous spaceplanes could be testing advanced guidance, navigation, and control systems. They could also support research in thermal protection systems, reentry mechanisms, avionics, propulsion, and autonomous systems.
However, astronauts on the ISS already conduct various experiments in zero gravity. The Chinese space station is also hosting similar experiments. Hence, it could be argued that if you have an established space station, then there is not much of a need for a having a different platform like a spaceplane to undertake the experiments. At the same time, it is well understood that the space station cannot be an alternative to the spaceplane in every respect.
The mystery surrounding the real purpose for spaceplane missions raises doubts about their actual intentions. Could such vehicles be developed and tested for undertaking a space-based anti-satellite strike, or they are meant for undertaking high-altitude surveillance? Another use of such platforms has already been demonstrated and that is for the deployment of reconnaissance satellites. Since a spaceplane has a demonstrated capability of staying in space for almost 1,000 days, they can be viewed as important platforms designed for launching during pre-war/conflict stage. That would make them something like cyberattacks, which normally are seen taking place as a prelude to the war. Spaceplanes could be used in a “launch on demand” role for satellites before and during the war.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning are essentially data-dependent systems. These technologies at present are just beginning to be comprehensively used for space applications. However, there are some issues with their reliability and adaptability aspects. Along with the algorithmic developments, there are also issues related to quality and quantity of data. Spaceplanes, with such a long stay in space, must have collected a good amount of important data of military relevance. Such data could help improve on related AI applications.
Weaponization of a space is a reality. Spaceplanes appears to be a platform capable of launching both kinetic and non-kinetic counterspace missions. With such a platform available, states can demonstrate both deterrence and usability factors in regards to their counterspace agenda. However, it appears that some more work needs to be done to improve the capability of such spaceplanes. The existing systems may not yet be considered potent space-based weaponry. There could be some issues with their orbits towards undertaking military specific missions. However, looking at the trajectory of China’s counterspace program, it is likely that China will weaponize its spaceplane in the near future.
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