Did China Just Launch Its Own Reusable Spacecraft?
Matthew Greenwood posted on September 21, 2020 |
A mysterious reusable spacecraft went into orbit, dropped something off, and then returned.

China’s secretive aerospace program has been at it again, claiming success for the launch and retrieval of a mysterious experimental reusable spacecraft.

The vehicle was launched atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China on September 4. The spacecraft reached an altitude of about 217 miles, which is consistent with previous Chinese crewed flights. Curiously, while in orbit the vehicle released an unknown object—perhaps even two—into orbit. It is believed to have landed at the massive and remote Lop Nur landing strip in northern China.

“The successful flight marked the country’s important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research and is expected to offer convenient and low-cost round-trip transport for the peaceful use of space,” said the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

According to Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the mission was likely to test out the spacecraft’s reentry and landing capabilities, as well as various systems such as power, temperature and maneuverability.

China has not released any results of the test, nor images of the spacecraft. But if it was successful it could bring the vehicle much closer to regular use. It’s possible the vehicle could be used to launch and repair satellites, conduct scientific tests—even ferry crew and cargo to and from China’s proposed space station.

“There are many firsts in this launch,” said a military source to South China Morning Post (SCMP). “The spacecraft is new; the launch method is also different.”

SCMP’s source suggested a comparison to Boeing’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)—itself a project shrouded in secrecy.

Boeing’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.
Boeing’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The X-37B is an uncrewed spacecraft that functions like a mini-Space Shuttle. It has the same body style and landing profile as the Shuttle but is about a fourth its size. The X-37B is built out of composite materials, with electromagnetic-based flight controls and brakes that are controlled through electromagnetics rather than hydraulics—measures designed to make it lighter and quieter than conventional spacecraft.

The vehicle is launched via a rocket and glides back down to land after its mission. In use by the U.S. Air Force, it’s designed to carry out missions in low Earth orbit, 150 to 500 miles above the surface. Its avionics suite allows it to leave orbit and land autonomously. And it can stay in orbit as long as 270 days.

China has been working on its own reusable space vehicle that would “fly into the sky like an aircraft,” stating in 2017 its intent to test one this year—putting the project right on schedule. The country launched a scaled-down version of such a vehicle in February 2018.

Satellite images of the recent launch indicate an unusually large fairing for the Long March, which is thought to have a payload capacity of 18,500 pounds—implying that the Chinese spacecraft could be much bigger than the 11,000-pound Boeing vehicle. However, McDowell suspects it was much smaller than the OTV.

While Chinese authorities claim its mystery vehicle is designed for peaceful missions, it’s also possible that the vehicle could be used for military purposes. It could jam or blind rival satellites—and if it’s as big as some observers suspect, it could even use a retractable arm to capture a rival’s satellite. The comparisons to the classified X-37B only reinforce that concern.

China’s space program is blazing ahead.

As is often the case with China’s space program, events like these pose more questions than answers. What are the spacecraft’s capabilities? How big is it? What did it put in orbit? And will it be used for civilian or military missions?

“If this really is a space plane, and not just a reusable capsule like Dragon, then it represents a big step forward in China’s space technology as winged reentry is really hard to do,” said McDowell. “China was way behind in space but has been gearing up its space program on all fronts and is now catching up fast.”

Read more about China’s space ambitions at A Race to Mars is Starting in Summer 2020.

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