China’s first reusable shuttle?


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On Monday China launched the first of a new generation of GPS satellites using a secretive new upper stage they call Yuanzheng-1 (“Expedition-1” in English).

The first article describes Yuanzheng-1 as follows:

The Yuanzheng-1 (“Expedition-1″) uses a small thrust 6.5 kN engine burning UDMH/N2O4 with specific impulse at 3092 m/s. The upper stage should be able to conduct two burns and has a 6.5 hour lifetime. It will be adapted for use on the CZ-3A/B/C series mainly for direct MEO/GEO insertion missions (mostly for the navigation satellites of the Beidou GNSS).

This description make it appear that Yuanzheng-1 is nothing more than a typical upper stage, capable of bringing its cargo to the appropriate orbit.

The second article, however, has a concept picture of Yuanzheng-1, a shuttle-like craft that looks to me to strongly resemble the X-37B. Nothing in the second article however contradicts the first, which leaves us with a mystery. Is this upper stage capable of returning to Earth after it deploys its cargo? The fact that the Chinese were unusually secretive about the launch itself suggests that there was definitely something unusual about the rocket itself.

If the Chinese have made their upper stage reusable they have taken a big step to reducing costs in a way that will allow them to compete with SpaceX, should that company succeed in returning its first stage so that it can be reused.

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