Status: Operational 2007. Gross mass: 4,500 kg (9,900 lb). Height: 6.50 m (21.30 ft). Diameter: 0.80 m (2.62 ft). Span: 3.00 m (9.80 ft).
In December 2007 photographs appeared of a spaceplane suspended under a Chinese H-6 bomber (Chinese derivative of the Soviet Tu-16 medium bomber of the 1950's). Unsourced information provided on Chinese websites soon thereafter indicated that the vehicle was designated Shenlong ("Divine Dragon"), carried the program number 863-706 (indicating it was part of a People's Liberation Army program in 1986 to improve China's advanced technology base), and was designed by the 611 Design Institute associated with the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (which is normally involved in fighter design). A photograph was posted showing a ground control center built by the 611 Institute to test the Shenlong. Another showed a computer-generated image of a (seemingly different) spaceplane being dropped by an elaborate trapeze mechanism from the belly of a Tu-16.
Based on the photograph, the Shenlong is an unmanned aerodynamic test vehicle which would have a drop mass of around 4500 kg (based on the weight of the KS-10 cruise missile, which was belly-launched from the Tu-16). Scaling from the photograph, the craft seems to be rather slender, about 6.5 m long with a diameter of 0.8 m. The dimensions and control center indicate it is unmanned. There is a rocket nozzle aft. This could just be a mockup for aerodynamic test purposes, or it could mean that a solid motor is installed to boost the model to supersonic speeds.
The Shenlong could be a subscale aerodynamic test model of a manned spaceplane concept; or full scale model of an unmanned spaceplane or boost-glide bomber system. Based on the unusual dimensions, the last seems the most likely possibility. Various Chinese statements over the year have indicated interest in such schemes. In 1996 CALT indicated it was still studying shuttle-sized manned systems for possible use by 2020. This was a similarly slender configuration (fineness ration 6.5:1, compared to 7.0:1 for Shenlong and 5.7:1 for the Space Shuttle).
Or Shenlong could be simply a aerodynamic test program, which like innumerable similar European, Japanese, and American ventures will never lead to an operational system. The bewildering variety of concept, wind tunnel and computer test models of Chinese spaceplanes that have shown up over the years would lend credence to that theory.