Ever since China claimed success in the secretive launch of an experimental spacecraft, experts have been pondering over what it could be and what it did in space.The spacecraft – mounted on a Long March 2F rocket – was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China on Sept. 4, 2020 and safely returned to Earth after two days in orbit…Unlike recent Chinese high-profile space missions, very few details have emerged about the vehicle and no visuals have been released. Chinese authorities have been tight-lipped about the nature of the short-duration excursion and what technologies were tested. The exact launch and landing times were not revealed, nor was the landing site although it is thought to be the Taklamakan Desert, which is in northwest China.
Three years ago, China said it would launch a space vessel in 2020 that “will fly into the sky like an aircraft” and be reusable. A reusable spacecraft – as the name implies can undertake multiple trips to space – thereby potentially lowering the overall cost of launch activity. A traditional one-off spacecraft – costing tens of millions of dollars – is practically rendered useless after a single mission.
The experimental vessel reached an altitude of about 350km, which is in line with China’s previous crewed flights. The spacecraft also released an unknown object into the orbit before returning to Earth…Once the testing is complete, such a vehicle could be used to launch and repair satellites, survey the Earth, as well as take astronauts and goods to and from orbit, possibly to a planned future Chinese space station.
The Chinese craft’s size and shape remain unclear but it is widely believed to be some sort of uncrewed space plane similar to the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle operated by the US Air Force. The recent mission could be linked to the Shenlong – or divine dragon – space plane project, which has been in development for some time, according to reports. A second Chinese reusable space plane called Tengyun, or cloud climber, is also in the works. If confirmed as a space plane, China would become only the third country to have successfully launched such a vehicle into orbit after the US and the former Soviet Union. The European Space Agency is working on its own reusable orbital vehicle called Space Rider, while India is also said to be developing a space shuttle-like craft.
The X-37B, resembling a miniature space shuttle, has been in orbit since late May 2020 following its launch on its sixth assignment. Very little is known about the X-37B’s missions, prompting speculation that the planes could be used for spying activity or testing space weapons.
According to Bleddyn Bowen, China’s spacecraft launch is “just another part of China becoming a comprehensive space power that utilizes space technology for the purposes of war, development, and prestige like all others”.
Pratik Jakhar, China claims ‘important breakthrough’ in space mission shrouded in mystery, BBC, Sept. 9, 2020