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China wants to build the world's biggest spaceplane

Proposed plane would carry 20 tourists to space, but some are skeptical

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China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology

A Chinese company is building a spaceplane that would carry up to 20 tourists, according to a report from New Scientist. The government-backed China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology have designed two versions of a one-piece rocket that would take off on its own power, though some are skeptical of the academy’s approach.

Rocket scientist Lui Haiquang presented the project at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico last week, telling attendees that the academy’s designs could be scaled up to accommodate more passengers. Team leader Han Pengxin tells New Scientist that ground tests are nearly finished, and that he expects test flights to be completed “in the next two years.” Han expects payload launches to begin by 2020, and if proven to be safe, the spaceplane could carry passengers for about $200,000 to $250,000 per ride.

"It is always easier to draw illustrations and talk possibilities than to build and fly spacecraft."

Other commercial spaceflight companies have similar ambitions. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo would carry six passengers to the edge of the atmosphere, as would New Shepard, the space capsule from Blue Origin. The Chinese project aims to carry significantly more passengers, and unlike SpaceShipTwo, which requires an aircraft to lift it to the edge of the atmosphere, the academy’s plane would take off “vertically like a rocket and land on the runway automatically without any ground or on-board intervention,” Han tells New Scientist.

The academy has designed two versions of the plane: a 10-tonne design that could carry five people to an altitude of 100 kilometers, and a 100-tonne version that would carry up to 20 passengers to an altitude of 130 kilometers. Both versions would be reusable, and the larger plane would be able to put small satellites into orbit, as well.

Roger Launius, of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, tells New Scientist that the project is an "interesting initiative," though he says the paper presented in Mexico last week still lacks important technical details. "It is always easier to draw illustrations and talk possibilities than to build and fly spacecraft," Launius tells the website.