When it comes to the dream of space tourism, big, well-known companies like Virgin Galactic seem to get all the credit. However, space enthusiasts now need to keep an eye out for China. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology has reportedly designed a spaceplane that could bring 20 tourists per trip into space.
Don’t go booking your tickets just yet, though. Even if everything goes according to plan, the present design is still years away from becoming a reality.
The Academy, which like many companies in China has the backing of the government, expects to launch a payload by 2020. That’s a big first step, and if all goes well, human passengers would be brought on board. That next step, however, could take years. Ground tests have reportedly gone well so far, but turning space tourism into reality has already taken longer than initially expected.
How it works
While it’s good to be skeptical about bold projections from little-known companies, there’s no doubt that the technology in the design is definitely interesting. It’s a relatively simple design that, if it works properly, could offer an efficient way to get into space.
As Futurism explains, the spaceplane would take off horizontally from a landing strip by using turbojet engines. Once it’s in the air, the ramjet propulsion from the engine kicks in, followed by extra speed from a scramjet engine. At this point, the spaceplane could utilize rocket motors to thrust into orbit.
The hardest part of any space launch is breaking through the atmosphere and into space. The air thins with altitude, making it incredibly challenging to get into space. Rockets can handle this task, as the propulsion from the launch helps pass this threshold. This plan, however, doesn’t have a traditional launch and instead relies on its engines well after taking off.
This is a big challenge, as the spaceplane will be carrying all of its fuel on board and will need to account for an even distribution of heat, the proper speed, and for all of its engines to function properly. The even distribution of heat is especially important, as the frigid temperatures of space, combined with the massive temperatures of the engines, need to be accounted for.
Plans for the plane have been broadcast on Chinese TV, yet precise details remain mostly unknown at this point. One engineer working on the project said, according to Popular Science, that the spaceplane will improve “ease of access to space for untrained persons.” This means that the takeoff would be fairly gentle and not require the extensive physical training needed to handle a rocket launch or space travel.
So far, two versions of the spaceplane have been designed. The smaller version with a six-meter wingspan has room for five passengers and a total mass of 10 tons. This small one could reach 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the Earth. The larger 12-meter wingspan design has room for 20 people and weighs 100 tons.
This larger version could launch small satellites into space and reach a 130-kilometer (81 mile) altitude. Each plane could be reused up to 50 times, which would in theory drive down prices of space tourism.
The most interesting thing about the spaceplane is its multi-functional engine. The multi-valve engine will reportedly be able to redirect airflow from one cycle to another, allowing the engine to hit supersonic speeds. Once it attains supersonic speed, a separate rocket motor attached to the spaceplane would push it through the atmosphere.
Due to the lack of concrete details, it’s hard to know exactly what could happen with this rocket. The most likely risk is that the spaceplane simply doesn’t work. There have been plenty of grand ideas about space travel from very smart people that have never come close to becoming a usable technology.
A good idea isn’t enough to make space travel viable. Virgin Galactic, which was founded back in 2004, found this out after a fatal test crash in 2015. The test showed that Virgin Galactic is years away from making commercial space travel viable, if it ever happens at all.
China’s safety standards are a mixed blessing for the spaceplane. Less strict safety standards could allow the project to move along at a faster speed than their Western competitors, but could also make testing far more dangerous.
Space tourism elsewhere in China
A less ambitious plan to get people into space — or in this case, technically, the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere — comes from KuangChi Science. This Chinese company is investing $1.5 billion in developing a balloon with an attached pressurized cabin that could bring tourists 24 kilometers (15 miles) above Earth.
This low-cost alternative to a rocket or a spaceplane is definitely promising, even though it won’t go high enough to truly bring people into space. There’s no word on when work for this project is finished.
Big plans and big dreams
As China’s massive infrastructure spending from the previous decades have shown, investors and the government are bold enough to back incredibly grand ideas. It’s just still way too early to tell whether the spaceplane or the balloon idea will get off the drawing board and into the skies.
However, there’s no doubt that the more competition, the better. If more countries want to get in on the space race for tourism, then the odds of success for a project to work will be that much higher.
This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, visit her page Schooled by Science.