China Just Launched And Landed A Secret Space Plane – And It May Have Released Something In OrbitPosted: September 10, 2020
Jonathan O’Callaghan. Contributor
|Sep 7, 2020,07:46am EDT
Jonathan is a freelance space journalist that covers commercial spaceflight, space exploration, and astrophysics
China’s Long March 2F rocket, pictured here on a previous mission, was used for the secretive … [+] GETTY IMAGES
China says it has successfully tested a “reusable spacecraft”, widely believed to be a space plane that could enable frequent and low-cost access to space – but the mission remains shrouded in mystery.
Yesterday, Sunday, September 6, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said the vehicle had returned to its “scheduled landing site” following a two-day mission in orbit. It had launched on a Long March 2F rocket on Friday, September 4 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
“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 the space,” Xinhua said.
The landing site is thought to have been in the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China, although that has not been officially confirmed.
Based on observations from independent observers on the ground, the vehicle reached an altitude of about 350 kilometers. It was initially launched at an orbital inclination of about 45 degrees, but then performed a “dogleg maneuver” to change its inclination to 50 degrees shortly after launching.
However, the exact nature of the vehicle itself, and what it did in space, remains unclear. China is known to have been developing space plane technology, but the sudden announcement of this launch came somewhat out of the blue.
It’s not known if the vehicle on the rocket was a prototype space plane designed to one day carry humans, or something more similar to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane, itself used for unknown missions in Earth orbit.
Photo X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1
China’s space plane might be similar to the American X-37B (pictured). CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES
A unnamed military source quoted by the South China Morning Post seemed to suggest the latter, saying “maybe you can take a look at the U.S. X-37B” regarding the spacecraft.
They added there were “many firsts in this launch”, which meant there was a “need to make sure there is extra security” and hence the secrecy around the launch – more so than on other Chinese space missions.
And there were suggestions that, like the X-37B, China’s vehicle may have released something in orbit. Reports hinted at something being released two orbits before the space plane returned to Earth, and while what this object was isn’t clear at the moment, there has been some speculation.
“Chinese crew capsules have previously released ‘Banxing’ small companion satellites for monitoring,” China space journalist Andrew Jones noted in SpaceNews. “An experimental new-generation crew spacecraft released a test inflatable reentry and descent technology module in May. The experiment suffered an anomaly during re-entry.”
Source: Forbes “China Just Launched And Landed A Secret Space Plane – And It May Have Released Something In Orbit”
Note: This is Forbes’ article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views