China’s New Solar Powered Drone Flies in Space to Supplement Growing Satellite Network: It Just Made its First Flight

China’s Qimingxing-50 solar powered drone, otherwise known as the Morning Star-50, had been confirmed to have made its first flight on September 3, making it the latest of a range of new Chinese unmanned aircraft to fly without analogues anywhere else in the world. Developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the aircraft took off in Yulin in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province on Saturday. It is capable of flying in near space, and can perform many functions usually reserved for satellites such as reconnaissance, monitoring, surveying and communications relay missions, and represents China’s first high-altitude low-speed drone with an ultrahigh aspect ratio, the first large drone to use a twin-fuselage configuration, and large drone design powered entirely by solar energy. Its power source allows it to stay in the air for considerably longer, with roles including high-altitude reconnaissance, forest fire monitoring, atmospheric environment monitoring, geographic mapping, communications relay among other tasks according to AVIC.

The Qimingxing-50’s technologies have significant military applications, able to provide targeting data or relay communications for Chinese assets should its satellites be neutralised, while able to launch from regular airfields rather than special satellite launch centres. The aircraft is also considerably cheaper than satellites, and is thought to be much easier to move when airborne allowing them to redeploy to avoid threats or provide coverage more easily. China, the United States and Russia have all invested heavily in anti satellite weaponry particularly in recent years, with the ability to blind enemy surveillance, cut communications and end access to targeting data potentially being decisive to any war between major powers particularly in the era of very long ranged precision guided hypersonic weapons. The Qimingxing-50 likely represents the first of many space aircraft intended to provide a similar function and a degree of redundancy to the satellite fleet, while also having significant civilian application particularly for responding to emergencies such as natural disasters. 

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