China unveils Starship-inspired suborbital spacecraft

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The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology presented a concept of a suborbital spacecraft capable of transporting humans anywhere on the planet from space. And this vehicle, you will see, looks strangely like SpaceX’s Starship.

This weekend, China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” in Nanjing, capital of east China’s Jiangsu Province. During this event, several lunar samples from the Chang ‘e-5 mission were displayed to the public. Chinese officials have also announced the name of their first Mars rover, which will attempt to land in mid-May. But one project is of particular interest to us.

A booth, that of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the main Chinese state rocket manufacturer, indeed revealed several concepts of suborbital vehicles. The idea: to transport humans all over the planet in record time.

Travel anywhere on Earth from space

Several companies are preparing to enter a new market: that of commercial suborbital flights. One of the most promising concepts is none other than that proposed by SpaceX. Primarily developed to carry large payloads to the moon and Mars, the interplanetary and reusable Starship spacecraft will also be able to transport large amounts of goods and humans around Earth.

Musk first pitched this idea in 2017, envisioning suborbital flights between space ports off major cities. A published video at the time promised us a flight time between New York and Shanghai of only 39 minutes, and announced the ability to get “anywhere on Earth in less than an hour”.

Originally, these flights were to rely on the two stages of the vehicle, namely the Starship and its Super Heavy booster. Then, in 2019, SpaceX revealed that these suborbital flights could only use the Starship. In order to meet the thrust requirements, such a suborbital ship would then need to equip itself with several additional Raptor engines (two to four, according to Musk).

Credit: SpaceX

A Starship Inspired Ship

That being said, it seems that SpaceX inspired the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. A promotional video, captured and shared on the Chinese social network Weibo, reveals to us two concepts of commercial suborbital vehicles likely to be developed over the next decade.

As you can see from the pictures (see here), the first concept bears a striking resemblance to the Starship vehicle, not only in appearance, but also in function. The second concept proposed in the Chinese video shows us a vehicle propelled horizontally by a kind of electromagnetic catapult.

Both of these systems fit into previously announced plans by China that aim to deliver cargo worldwide via suborbital flight by 2035, and then passengers by 2045.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the Chinese space program has taken a close interest in SpaceX. When the company was first launched in 2006, a spy boat was indeed in the small expanse of the ocean where the first stage of the Falcon 1 rocket was to return.

And Elon Musk’s company inspires. More recently, in 2019, the Chinese Long March 2C rocket indeed tested “mesh fins” similar to those used by the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to navigate into the atmosphere during the reentry process. We know that China also intends to develop the rocket Long March 8 to land on a sea platform, as the Falcon 9 boosters currently do.

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