The Shenlong project: China’s mystery space plane

As the next secretive flight of the U.S. 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.

Several China watchers in the U.S. have taken a stab at what the Shenlong (Mandarin for “Divine Dragon) might mean, with some experts conjecturing that the craft is simply a tit-for-tat response to the unmanned X-37B space plane.

Challenge to the U.S.?

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 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 U.S. military over conventional upper stages, satellite buses and re-entry capsules,” Gubrud said. The Air Force’s robotic plane would appear to serve the U.S. primarily as a sign that American space power endures despite retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet, he 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 U.S. 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, Chinatypically revealed its systems’ existence at least 15 years after the U.S. first showed its analogous platforms,” Erickson and Collins observed.

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