China flies ‘quasi-satellite’ in near space — Analysis

Chief designer says the solar-powered vehicle has been designed to perform a wide range of surveillance tasks over long periods.

China successfully tested on Saturday its first large drone powered exclusively by solar energy, and designed to fly in near space, the country’s state-owned planemaker said. This vehicle may be able to perform certain functions previously performed only by satellites.

The Aviation Industry Corporation of China(AVIC) reports that the Qimingxing 50 or Morning Star 50 vehicle took off from Yulin in northern China and successfully landed 26 minutes later.

The company said that after its maiden flight, all of the UAV’s system components were in good condition. Additionally, it noted the UAV’s super-high aspect ratio as well as the first-ever twin-fuselage design for its size. It is also solely powered by solar power.

The release states that the aircraft’s propulsion system is six electric motors. It is intended to be able to perform long-term operations in close space.

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Zhu Shengli, the drone’s chief designer, called it a “quasi-satellite“, he said, adding that the aircraft is capable of carrying out a variety of missions, such as high-altitude reconnaissance and forest fire monitoring, atmospheric inspection, aerial mapping, communication signal relay, and aerial mapping.

He said the solar-powered drone will improve China’s operational capability in near space and over the oceans. A number of experts have confirmed that at a height of around 20,000 meters, when there is no cloud cover, the drone can make full use of its solar panel, which could allow it to fly as long its solar equipment works.

Global Times interviewed an unnamed Chinese expert in aerospace. He said that satellite services may not be available at all due to the small number of satellites, overhead passages, and a fixed schedule. He said that near-space drones can offset these disadvantages for time-sensitive missions. It was also noted that satellite services can be compromised in wartime. In such cases, near-space drones may replace them.

Qimingxing 50 doesn’t represent the only Chinese space UAV. There are two Chinese space companies that have built similar solar-powered drones.

These capabilities are also available in the UK and USA. The UK’s Airbus solar-electric Zephyr is able to fly at a 21 km altitude, and in late August, the high-altitude Airbus Zephyr S stayed airborne for 64 days, just several hours short of breaking the world record, before crashing down.

US’ Helios Prototype was the drone that set the world record at the highest altitude achieved by a solar-powered drone. This record, which stands at 29 524 meters, was established by AeroVironmentInc (California) in August 2001.

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