Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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China Plans to Build a Hypersonic Space Shuttle Capable of Mach 5

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(Photo : CCTV) Illustration of China's proposed hypersonic space shuttle.

China's planned version of the retired U.S. Space Shuttle will be a hypersonic space plane capable of exceeding Mach 5 (6,000 km/h) and propelled by a revolutionary combined cycle engine made in China.

The specs of China's hypersonic space shuttle already exceed that of the Space Shuttle, which was an unpowered glider only capable of landing. The Space Shuttle had to be taken into orbit by a massive launch vehicle powered by solid and liquid fuel rocket boosters.

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In contrast, China's hypersonic space shuttle will take-off, enter Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to launch satellites or Chinese "yuhangyuans" (astronauts) on the planned Chinese space station and land under its own power.

China plans to develop and test this vehicle over the next three to five years, and plans to have the hypersonic shuttle in service by 2030. Flight testing is expected to begin in 2020.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CATSC) said China's space plane will use a combined cycle engine. Take-off from a runway will be powered by a turbofan or turbojet engine. A ramjet engine will then kick-in to propel space plane upward through atmosphere.

As the space plane hits supersonic speeds, it will then ignite its scramjet engine that will push it through near space, the region of Earth's atmosphere that lies from 20 km to 100 km above sea level.

Once it enters Low Earth Orbit, the space plane will use its onboard rocket motors to maneuver into orbit. Its combined cycle engine will propel the space plane into space more gradually than a rocket engine-powered spacecraft.

This less violent launch reduces the physical strain on passengers and improves the ease of access to space for persons without prior spaceflight training.

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