The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing has designed a simple, one-piece spaceplane whose design can be scaled up to carry more people, academy rocket scientist Lui Haiquang told the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, last week.
China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology have designed a winged rocket that takes off under its own power.
Virgin Galactics Spaceship 2 will have a crew of two and room for six passengers. By August 2013, 640 customers had signed up for a flight, initially at a ticket price of $200,000 per person, but raised to $250,000 in May 2013
Blue Origin’s suborbital space capsule, New Shepard, aims to carry six tourists. But academy team leader Han Pengxin and his colleagues believe consumer demand will be high enough to build a much higher capacity spacecraft.
China's media and researchers have discussed creating a hypersonic spaceplane for tourism before.
“The vehicle will take off vertically like a rocket and land on the runway automatically without any ground or on-board intervention,” Han says. It will burn liquid methane and liquid oxygen.
Han’s team has designed two versions of their rocket plane. The first has a mass of 10 tonnes and a wingspan of 6 metres. This one, he says, should be able to fly five people to an altitude of 100 kilometres – where space officially begins – at speeds up to Mach 6, giving 2 minutes of weightlessness.
But a scaled up 100-tonne version, with a 12-metre wingspan, could fly 20 people to 130 kilometres at Mach 8, giving 4 minutes of weightlessness. That larger spacecraft is fast enough to help deliver small satellites into orbit, with the help of a small rocket stage add-on that would sit on top of the vehicle. And that payload-carrying capability will reduce tourist ticket prices, says Han. They also intend to make it reusable, so each plane should be good for up to 50 flights.
Tests are advanced, Han adds. “The test flights will be finished in the next two years, because almost all of the ground tests have been finished and all the subsystems of the test vehicle worked very well.”
He imagines flights will launch from a commercial spaceport – whose location is as yet undecided – with payload launches in 2020. The plane will carry people when it is considered safe enough.
Han predicts that a ride will cost between $200,000 and $250,000.
Some are sceptical of the team’s claims. The spaceplane is an “interesting initiative”, says spaceflight expert Roger Launius at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, but he’s concerned about the lack of technical details in their four-page IAC paper.