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China Has a Copycat Space Plane -- and Experts Are Keeping an Eye on It

"...represent a key barometer of its civil and military space intentions."

The U.S. Air Force, since the retirement of the country's space shuttle program, has been in the spotlight more for the secretive missions of its X-37B mini-shuttle, which is an unmanned aerial vehicle that functions in orbit around Earth. Some speculate that China took note of this plane and created their own called Shenlong.

"Shenlong is China’s effort to develop a re-entering aerodynamic spacecraft, similar to the space shuttle or the X-37B but much smaller than either," said Mark Gubrud, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, according to Space.com.

China's Shelong, seen below the bomber plane, on a 2007 test flight. (Image: Chinese internet via Space.com)

To Gubrud, both the U.S. and China's efforts on the realm of space planes are more a show of power than of any else:

"[...] the economic rationale for the [NASA] shuttle was never realized, and it is not clear what advantages the X-37B offers the U.S. military over conventional upper stages, satellite buses and re-entry capsules," Gubrud said. The Air Force's robotic plane would appear to serve the U.S. primarily as a sign that American space power endures despite retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet, he said.

"Appropriately enough, Shenlong may also be little more than a symbol of China’s ability to challenge U.S. assumptions of primacy and technological dominance," Gubrud said.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a national security affairs professor at the U.S. Naval War College, would agree to an extent.

"If countries see the U.S. working on a space plane, they will feel compelled to do so, also," Johnson-Freese said.

The Air Force's X-37B is larger than China's Shelong. (Image: Wikimedia)

Still, she would caution hyping the technology's use. Johnson-Freese told Space.com that the technology "could be destabilizing as it pushes countries to act faster in fear of potential threats." Some have made claims that such technology could be used for spy purposes or to bring weapons to space.

Overall, Space.com reported China watchdogs believing that the copy-catting is evidence of a smaller time-frame being seen between when the U.S. shows off a prototype and China making its own. In fact, we've already seen another instance of this. TheBlaze reported in June similarities that were noted between the U.S.'s F-22 Raptor and China's J-20 stealth fighter.

Even if it is a case of keeping up with the Jones, Space.com reported China analysts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins writing on the website SignPost that China's efforts are not something that should be written off:

"Beijing’s development of space plane programs is broad-based, and their trajectory will represent a key barometer of its civil and military space intentions."

The Air Force's X-37B was set to re-launch into orbit on Nov. 2,  but this mission was delayed due to a glitch. Space.com in a separate post reported that it is rescheduled for Nov. 27 launch. The X-37B was developed by Boeing as an orbital test vehicle that will conduct space experiments and be involved in "risk reduction and concept of operations development." Watch this video about the X-37B:

Read more analysts details of China's Shenlong here.

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