A refueling plane, known as a space tanker, made its debut at Airshow China 2021 in Zhuhai, south China’s Guangdong Province, which kicked off on Tuesday. The aircraft can provide an energy guarantee for the long-term operation of satellites in orbit.
Satellites have become vital to modern human life. They provide weather forecasts, television broadcasts, mobile communications, global navigation, and other services.
However, it is very expensive to build a satellite in geostationary orbit, which usually costs billions of yuan. When the fuel runs out, the life of the satellite is over. Therefore, refueling technology can provide energy assurance for the long-term operation of satellites in orbit.
A refueling plane was designed accordingly, which led to its debut at this year’s Airshow China.
The aircraft was developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology and can load as much fuel as possible while maintaining basic operations in orbit, the Science and Technology Daily reported, citing an academy designer.
The designer said 50 kilograms of fuel could help extend the life of a satellite by a year. The refueling plane can carry 1.3 tons of fuel at a time, more than half of its total weight. This can reduce costs by 35% compared to relaunching a satellite.
The aircraft is equipped with an automatic steering function. When a satellite sends a message asking for help, the aircraft can track and approach the satellite autonomously using navigation systems. When it reaches about 2 meters from the satellite, it will be connected to the refueling port to deliver fuel.
The docking refueling device, which debuted with the new aircraft, is a key technology for the in-orbit refueling mission and is the first of its kind in China. It can create conditions for the refueling aircraft through a close and reliable connection with the satellite.
In 2017, the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft successfully docked with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory, completing the first in-orbit propellant refueling test. This means that China has made a breakthrough in in-orbit refueling technology, becoming the third country in the world after the United States and Russia to independently master this technology.