China is getting ready to build and test the world’s largest commercial space plane with a planned launch date of 2020. Lui Haiquang, rocket scientist with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (a state-backed firm) in Beijing announced its ambitious plans at the International Aeronautics Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico last month.
There are two prototypes of space planes. The first is a smaller version capable of carrying five space tourists, weighing in at 10 tons with a wingspan of 19.6 feet. This craft will go up to an altitude of 62 miles and allow the passengers two minutes of weightlessness.
The larger version will carry 20 passengers, making it the largest space plane on the market. Weighing 100 tons and with a wingspan of 40 feet, this craft will soar up to 80 miles. Passengers will experience four minutes of weightlessness.
Team leader Han Pengxin says,
The vehicle will take off vertically, like a rocket and land on the runway automatically without any ground or onboard intervention.
The craft will also be able to launch small satellites. Using liquid methane and liquid oxygen as fuel, the space planes will straddle the Earth’s stratosphere. The launch location is yet to be determined.
The test flights will be finished in the next two years, because almost all off the ground tests have been finished and all the subsystems of the test vehicle worked very well.
China, however, isn’t the only entity fast-tracking the lucrative space tourism market. After a fatal 2014 test crash, Virgin Galactic is poised for a comeback with its Spaceship Two craft, VSS Unity, which completes its first test flight last month. Elon Musk’s Space X, XCOR and Blue Origin’s New Shepherd have also entered the space plane race.
Blue Origin, owned by Amazon owner Jeff Bezo has already planned crewed test flights. Bezo says,
We’ll probably fly test pilots in 2017, and if we’re successful then I’d imagine putting paid astronauts on in 2018.
Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency also have plans for a space plane.
China’s Pengxin says,
More and more common persons are interested in the experience of space flight.
China’s target market is “bosses and businessmen.” At a cost of $200,000 to $250,000 a ticket, only the successful need apply.