Russia’s plans to launch reusable spacecraft with no cosmonauts on board resemble a mix between the Space Shuttle and a futuristic jet liner.
While the US and China appear to be in the middle of a new race to land humans on the moon, Russia seems to be reasserting its legacy as the original pioneer of uncrewed space travel. According to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, a new photo revealed what may be the country’s latest hypersonic drone spacecraft, dubbed the ‘MLD’.
Developed by Russian space agency Roscosmos and an engineering firm called Ison, the craft would be reusable for up to 50 missions and capable of flying 160km above the Earth at the blistering speed of Mach 7, or 2,401 metres per second. It is also expected to be able to carry a satellite or other equipment on board to altitudes of 500km.
Powering the spacecraft will be a single Briz-M upper-stage engine in use by Roscosmos since 2000. This will be fired once a high-altitude geophysical research aircraft – dubbed the M-55 – takes it up to the right altitude.
An infographic released by Ison showed how the drone would be launched. After detaching from the carrier aircraft, it aims to fire its engine and launch to even greater altitudes and complete its mission. When it descends, it will eventually reach a point where it will deploy parachutes for recovery by personnel on the ground.
According to Ison’s director general, Yury Bakhvalov, there will be a total of five tests of the prototypes some time in 2023.
Other than that, information on the MLD remains scant, with possible uses for it remaining just as speculation for now. However, it does seem similar in concept to Boeing’s mysterious X-37B craft. In 2017, the experimental space drone returned to Earth after a two-year secret mission. Since then, it has continued performing unknown missions in space, having passed the 500-day mark on its latest run last month.
Updated, 9.28am, 8 March 2019: This article was updated to correct an error and clarify that Mach 7 is 2,401 metres per second, not 2,401km per second.