Analysts keep close eye on China's mystery space plane
Nature of Shenlong project, and what the robot vehicle truly represents, remain sketchy
As the next secretive flight of the US Air Force's robotic X-37B mini-shuttle draws closer, analysts are keeping a close eye on China’s own potential space plane, the Shenlong.
Last year several Chinese media outlets reported a test flight of the Shenlong space plane that apparently included its airdrop from an H-6 bomber. But the nature of the Shenlong project's testing, as well as what the robot vehicle truly represents, remains sketchy.
China is the third country, after Russia and the United States, to develop an independent human spaceflight program. It has made a series of incremental advances that culminated earlier this year in China's first manned space docking at an orbital laboratory. The country has stated its goal of building a 60-ton space station for future missions.
China's current manned Shenzhou spacecraft, however, are capsule-based vehicles. "Shenlong is China’s effort to develop a re-entering aerodynamic spacecraft, similar to the space shuttle or the X-37B but much smaller than either," said Mark Gubrud, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.
Gubrud told Space.com that if China space designers are successful in their Shenlong work, the country may attempt to develop a larger version.
"However, the economic rationale for the (NASA) shuttle was never realized, and it is not clear what advantages the X-37B offers the US military over conventional upper stages, satellite buses and re-entry capsules," Gubrud said. The Air Force's robotic plane would appear to serve the US primarily as a sign that American space power endures despite retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet, he said. "Appropriately enough, Shenlong may also be little more than a symbol of China’s ability to challenge US assumptions of primacy and technological dominance," Gubrud said.
Other China space program watchdogs are mindful of the military origins of the country's space efforts. "It seems to be a focus, and it likely builds upon a bureaucratic element that had proposed a space shuttle/space plane approach to manned space that was trumped by the Shenzhou space capsule design," said Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. Cheng said numerous scientific conferences held in China during 1988-92 saw debate about what the manned space program vehicle should look like. "Given regular People’s Liberation Army writings about the importance of space-to-ground military operations in the future, something like an X-43 (an unmanned experimental hypersonic aircraft) or X-37B would also have appeal, as a likely pathway for military purposes," Cheng said.
The bottom line ? Erickson and Collins also wrote that, depending on its precise nature, Shenlong’s reported test may turn out to be part of a larger trend: a shrinking time gap between when the US discloses a prototype military system and when China publicly shows a system similar in type—if not equal in capabilities or immediately operational. "For previous aerospace developments, China typically revealed its systems’ existence at least 15 years after the US first showed its analogous platforms," Erickson and Collins observed.
The bottom line, the two researchers said, is that foreign policymakers need to take China’s ambitions in space seriously.