China’s reusable spaceplane lands at secret airstrip in Lop Nur desert


The Chinese experimental spaceplane can be used for both civil and military 
purposes. China had said earlier that it would carry out reusable technology 
verification as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of 
space. 
Col Vinayak Bhat
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation's experimental reusable spaceplane

China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s experimental reusable spaceplane (Photo Credits: Chinese Weibo)

China is in the spaceplane club now. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation — the country’s main space contractor — had been toying with the idea of a spacecraft for the last five years, and on September 4 launched an experimental reusable spaceplane on a two-day orbital mission.

The first scaled-down model of a spaceplane was tested in February 2018 which was confirmed by scientists Ye Youda and Liu Gang. The spaceplane can be used for both civil and military purposes. It can carry a payload that can either be placed in the space orbit or delivered to the Earth’s surface as and when required.

The possible Chinese spaceplane project comes as the US Air Force is working on its own reusable spaceplane called the X-37B. After launching the vehicle, China had said “it will carry out reusable technology verification as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”

Back in 2017, China said it aimed to test a reusable spaceplane in 2020.

China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s experimental reusable spaceplane (Photo Credits: Chinese Weibo)

The US spaceplane X-37B has created a record flight time of 780 days in space, indicating a new era of space weaponisation.

China jumped into the fray in 2018 and has managed to test a prototype possibly named Tengyun. The details of the experimental spacecraft such as size, weight, payload and whether manned or unmanned have not been revealed as of yet.

Jiuquan Lift-off

The Chinese news agency Xinhua had reported that the experimental spaceplane took off from the main launch pad No. 921, Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (JQSLC), on a Long March series of rocket CZ-2F on September 4, 2020 around 1530h.

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Satellite image shows China’s Jiuquan launch pad renovated (Photo Credits: India Today)

The latest satellite images of this main launch pad at JQSLC indicate that the launch pad, umbilical tower and mobile launcher were renovated recently possibly to accommodate the large hammer head fairing of CZ-2F for launch of the spaceplane.

The lift-off ground pictures show a phenomenally large fairing of the rocket, indicating that the spacecraft is possibly 8 tonnes, almost double the size of US X-37B.

Such a massive-sized spaceplane with a retractable arm could easily pick up an adversary’s spy satellite and bring it back to the Earth. It was a successful lift-off on the 14th mission of CZ-2F carrier rocket.

Space Flight

China has not yet revealed any data about space flight, although it has been studied by US state agencies and space enthusiasts alike.

Satellite image shows Chinese secret airstrip near Lopnur (Photo Credits: India Today)

The space flight was studied very diligently by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The study indicates that China had launched a space shuttle type of craft which made orbital paths, strongly suggesting that it was an unmanned flight.

The Chinese social media rumours also suggest that the spaceplane put two payloads in the space orbit. The spacecraft moved in a low earth orbit of 348km X 318km. The astronomer claimed that it was much smaller in size than the US X-37B.

Landing near Lop Nur

The Chinese spaceplane landed on a secretive airstrip close to China’s oldest nuclear test area of Lop Nur.

Satellite image shows features of Chinese secret airstrip near Lopnur (Photo Credits: India Today)

The flight path and time of landing suggests that this was the airstrip on which the spacecraft landed. The Planet Labs has captured the spacecraft on high-resolution satellite imagery which has not yet been made public.

Secretive Airstrip in a Nutshell

China’s secretive airstrip has now become quite well-known with the landing of the reusable spaceplane there on September 6, 2020 at around 1000h local time.

Satellite image shows Chinese secret airstrip near Lopnur (Photo Credits: India Today)

The airstrip is 5km long, 60m wide and has 2.5km of overshoots on either side. The total length thus is 10km. There are two more dirt strips of 5km with 500m overshoots on either side forming a triangle.

The formation is probably for the spaceplane to identify from a longer distance so that accurate landing can be made at the correct airstrip.

Satellite image shows radar at Chinese secret airstrip near Lopnur (Photo Credits: India Today)

There are two large launch pads with one 15m X 30m and another 20m X 20m. There is a small antennae field of 15m X 15m size and solar panels for electricity supply to the facility.

There are three staff barracks and a large tall hangar of 25m X 50m size possibly for temporary storage of test articles.

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Satellite image shows Chinese secret airstrip near Lopnur (Photo Credits: India Today)

Some monitoring equipment has also been noticed at various places on this massive airfield. There are some buildings and some dugouts possibly for monitoring equipment to be placed during launch and landing.

A possible meteorological radar is visible at the north-eastern side of the main runway halfway down the overshoot.

(Col Vinayak Bhat (Retd) is a consultant for India Today. A satellite imagery analyst, he served in the Indian Army for over 33 years)

Source: India Today “China’s reusable spaceplane lands at secret airstrip in Lop Nur desert”

Note: This is India Today’s report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.


Vietnam Taking Long-Term Hard Line Toward China on Maritime Claims


FILE - A Vietnamese floating guard station is seen on Truong Sa islands, or Spratly island.

FILE – A Vietnamese floating guard station is seen on Truong Sa islands, or Spratly island.

TAIPEI —
Vietnam is lengthening a military runway on a tiny islet to help hold off a larger, more aggressive China for control in Asia’s widest-reaching sovereignty dispute as other claimants keep quiet or seek negotiations.

The government in Hanoi is extending the runway on one of the Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, from 762 to 1,005 meters and building new hangars, according to the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The longer runway would allow easier access for the air force’s maritime surveillance aircraft, it said.

Historic use of the sea, strong national pride and a history of deadly conflicts are motivating Vietnam to fortify more than two dozen islands in the chain.

“The Vietnamese have to play a very careful game,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist at Mekong Economics in Hanoi. “They don’t really want to provoke China, but they also can’t just let China do whatever it wants to do.

China has also irritated Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines since 2010 with its quick expansion into the 3.5-million-square-km (1.4 million-square-mile) ocean.

Standing up to China

But other governments normally keep quiet when China passes ships through their maritime zones. Malaysia, for one, hopes to protect its extensive trade and investment relations with the world number two economy, while Brunei is also quiet.

The Philippines, once hostile enough to take the maritime dispute to a world arbitration court, began making peace with China in August. The two sides may now explore jointly for undersea fossil fuels.

Vietnam has already done landfill work on 27 South China Sea islets, more than any other claimant, though China’s land reclamation is grabbing more headlines.

Vietnam has also acquired submarines and spent heavily on military expansion over the past eight years, analysts note.

Unique cause for concern

Vietnam is uniquely wary of China for historical reasons, analysts say. The two sides fought a border war in 1979 and have reported three major clashes at sea. An incident in the Paracel Islands in 1974 sank a South Vietnamese navy ship with the captain on board, killing a total 71 from both sides. A 1988 naval battle left 64 Vietnamese dead.

From 1992 to 1996, Vietnam staved off China’s efforts to explore some of the sea’s islets, but China has taken an upper hand since then despite a 2007 plan in Vietnam to link maritime resources to its coastal economic development.

Two years ago Vietnamese and Chinese vessels rammed each other in the Gulf of Tonkin after China allowed an offshore oil driller to position a rig in overlapping waters. The oil rig incident sparked anti-China riots in Vietnam and left 21 dead. Vietnam protested a Chinese rig using the same waters in April.

“I think, number one, they have very unfortunately experienced in the past that they have had actual military confrontation with China in terms of protecting their maritime interests,” said Andrew Yang, secretary general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

Historic claims

Vietnamese people have used the South China Sea for hundreds of years, stoking the nationalism behind today’s dispute with China. Before North and South Vietnam were unified in the 1970s, the south maintained military and civilian communities in the Spratlys. Its claims to the ocean now also overlap with Malaysia and the Philippines.

“The Vietnamese leadership still has to be very sensitive and responsive to what the Vietnamese people really feel and want,” he said. “There’s a strong anti-China sentiment and there’s very strong nationalism in Vietnam, so they have to be seen to be pushing back against China but at the same time they realize you can’t poke the bear too often or you get a really bad backlash.”

Vietnamese officials once believed the South China Sea to hold oil and natural gas reserves off their south coast, McCarty said, but they eased away due to the cost of exploration. The country is not “sophisticated” in deep-sea fishing, another common economic reason countries cite for their interest in the South China Sea, he said.

As China builds up tiny disputed islets with the capability of launching planes, Vietnam fears its claims will be harder to defend, McCarty said.

Hanoi seeks peace with Beijing

Still, the country counts China as its top supplier of raw material for a fast-growing manufacturing sector. China is also Vietnam’s top trading partner.

The Communist government in Hanoi squelched the 2014 riots in part to keep peace with Beijing. In September, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc pledged to manage their differences over maritime issues.

At the same time, Vietnam is pursuing closer security ties with Japan, India and the United States as a bulwark against China.

“They’ve gone much further than Malaysia and much, much further than the Philippines to be able to represent a deterrent [to China],” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia.

In May the U.S. government lifted a 30-year-old embargo against selling lethal weapons to Vietnam and separately it has offered $18 million in military aid. Japan is also sending maritime patrol boats to Vietnam.

China prefers two-way talks with rival maritime claimants to solve disputes and has lashed out at the United States for intervention.

“Vietnam had long been negotiating bilaterally with China, but Vietnam is different in saying that where third party interests are involved, then they have a right to be involved,” Thayer said.

Source: VOA “Vietnam Taking Long-Term Hard Line Toward China on Maritime Claims”

Note: This is VOA’ article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


China Conducting Land Reclamation in Paracels in Addition to Spratlys


North and Middle Islands before and after land reclamation

North and Middle Islands on January 9 when land reclarmation began and on March 2 when much land reclamation had been done.

The Diplomat says in its report on March 7 titled “Satellite Imagery: China Expands Land Filling at North Island in the Paracels”, “Satellite imagery from March 2, 2016 shows a marked expansion of China’s dredging and land filling at North Island in the Paracels.”

The dredging did not begin until January 2016 and the report says, land reclaimed links North Island with Middle Island to accommodate a runway. The report believes that China may build an airstrip there though there is an airfield in nearby Woody Island. China will have three airstrips in the Spratlys. Two in the Paracels are not too many.

Source: The Diplomat “Satellite Imagery: China Expands Land Filling at North Island in the Paracels”

Full text of the report can be viewed at http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/satellite-imagery-china-expands-land-filling-at-north-island-in-the-paracels/


China Turning Mischief Reef into its Pearl Harbor in South China Sea


Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy

The Jinggangshan amphibious attack warship at the land reclamation site of Mischief Reef. As the warship is a large one with weak capabilities of self defense, there obviously are at least one frigate and supply warship nearby though not shown in this photo. (File photo)

The Jinggangshan amphibious attack warship at the land reclamation site of Mischief Reef. As the warship is a large one with weak capabilities of self defense, there obviously are at least one frigate and supply warship nearby though not shown in this photo. (File photo)

On June 18, news.ifeng.com published an article titled “Turning Mischief Reef into the Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea is of vital importance” on the advantages of the artificial island reclaimed there in serving as China’s forefront outpost in the South China Sea with integrated air, sea and land garrison.

This blogger gave a summary of the article in his post titled “China to Turn Mischief Reef into Pearl Harbor in South China Sea”.

However, as ifeng.com is a website based in Hong Kong independent from the Chinese government, he did not know whether the article revealed Chinese government’s intention.

The article said that by June 15 when the land reclamation at Fiery Cross Reef was completed, only 5.6 of the planned 8 square km of land have been reclaimed as the reclamation began late in January 2015.

It described the advantages of the lagoon there as good shelter for large warships and the depth of the sea 1,000 meters away from the reef as ideal berth for submarines.

The article says that once China has completed the construction of an 8-square km artificial island on Mischief Reef, the island “will not only be the largest artificial island in the sea area of the South China Sea but also enable China to have its first important integrated land, sea and air military base able to station at the same time a battalion of garrison, destroyers and frigates, amphibious troops, a squadron of fighter jets and a number of submarines.”

But the article also says that the land reclamation at that time was but to raise the height of the part of the reef that crops out of the water at low tide; therefore, the land reclaimed is not wide enough for a large airstrip. However, it is not difficult for the construction of a medium-sized airport for such aircrafts as Y-9 and even Y-20 transports.

However, Reuters says in its report “China building third airstrip on disputed South China Sea islets: expert” today that according to satellite photos taken for Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank on Sept. 8, there was on the artificial island built on Mischief Reef a rectangular area with a retaining wall, 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) long for an airstrip to accommodate most Chinese military aircrafts. Such an airstrip will give China greater reach into the heart of maritime Southeast Asia, where it has competing claims with several countries.

That will be something like U.S. Pearl Harbor in the Pacific.

Article by Chan Kai Yee in response to Reuters’s report.

The following is the full text of Reuters’ report:

China building third airstrip on disputed South China Sea islets: expert
WASHINGTON By David Brunnstrom Mon Sep 14, 2015 6:53pm EDT

China appears to be building a third airstrip in contested territory in the South China Sea, a U.S. expert said on Monday, citing satellite photographs taken last week.

The photographs taken for Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank on Sept. 8 show construction on Mischief Reef, one of several artificial islands China has created in the Spratly archipelago.

The images show a rectangular area with a retaining wall, 3,000 meters (3,280 yards) long, matching similar work by China on two other reefs, Subi and Fiery Cross, said Greg Poling, director of CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

“Clearly, what we have seen is going to be a 3,000-meter airstrip and we have seen some more work on what is clearly going to be some port facilities for ships,” he said.

Security experts say the strip would be long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft, giving Beijing greater reach into the heart of maritime Southeast Asia, where it has competing claims with several countries.

News of the work comes ahead of a visit to Washington next week by Chinese President Xi Jinping. U.S. worries about China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims are expected to be high on the agenda.

A spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, Commander Bill Urban, declined to comment specifically on Poling’s assessment, but repeated U.S. calls for a halt to land reclamation, construction and militarization of South China Sea outposts to “ease tensions and create space for diplomatic solutions.”

“China’s stated intentions with its program, and continued construction, will not reduce tensions or lead to a meaningful diplomatic solution,” he added.

A new airstrip at Mischief Reef would be particularly worrying for the Philippines, a rival claimant in the South China Sea. It would allow China to mount “more or less constant” patrols over Reed Bank, where the Philippines has long explored for oil and gas, Poling said.

Three airstrips, once completed, would allow China to threaten all air traffic over the features it has reclaimed in the South China Sea, he said, adding that it would be especially worrying if China were to install advanced air defenses.

Satellite photographs from late June showed China had almost finished a 3,000-meter airstrip on Fiery Cross.

Satellite images from earlier this year showed reclamation work on Subi Reef creating land that could accommodate another airstrip. Poling said the latest images made it obvious that such an airstrip was being built at Subi.

China stepped up creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea last year, drawing strong criticism from Washington.

Asked about Mischief Reef on Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei repeated China’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands and its right to establish military facilities there.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Christian Plumb)


Military Facilities Being Built on China’s Artificial Islands


The artificial island on June 14 when completed.

The artificial island on June 14 when completed.

Reuters says in its report “Images show Chinese airstrip on man-made Spratly island nearly finished” on July 1, recent satellite images show that China has almost finished building an airstrip on its artificial island on Fiery Cross Reef and built a large multi-level military facility in the center of South Johnson Reef with two possible radar towers under construction. In addition, China continues its large-scale land reclamation on Mischief and Subi Reefs.

It gives a photo of Fiery Cross Island dated May 21, but I hereby provide a photo above of the Island dated June 14 when land reclamation is finished.

The following is the full text of Reuters’ report:

Images show Chinese airstrip on man-made Spratly island nearly finished
July 1, 2015

China has almost finished building a 3,000-metre-long (10,000-foot) airstrip on one of its artificial islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, new satellite photographs of the area show.

A U.S. military commander had told Reuters in May that the airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef could be operational by year-end, although the June 28 images suggest that could now be sooner.

The airstrip will be long enough to accommodate most Chinese military aircraft, security experts have said, giving Beijing greater reach into the heart of maritime Southeast Asia.

China said on Tuesday some of its land reclamation in the Spratlys, where it’s building seven islands on top of coral reefs, had been completed, although it gave few details.

The latest photographs were taken by satellite imagery firm DigitalGlobe and published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. (amti.csis.org/)

AMTI said the airstrip was being paved and marked, while an apron and taxiway had been added adjacent to the runway.

Two helipads, up to 10 satellite communications antennas and one possible radar tower were visible on Fiery Cross Reef, it said. The images also showed a Chinese naval vessel moored in a port.

Recent images of Chinese-occupied South Johnson Reef also showed a large multi-level military facility in the center of the reef with two possible radar towers under construction, AMTI added. Two helipads and up to three satellite communications antennas were also visible, it said.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.

China stepped up its creation of artificial islands last year, alarming several countries in Asia and drawing criticism from Washington. Beijing says the outposts will have undefined military purposes, as well as help with maritime search and rescue, disaster relief and navigation.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry did not specify where land reclamation had been completed in the Spratlys. Recent images indicate there is still much reclamation continuing at Mischief Reef and Subi Reef.

The U.S. State Department’s number two diplomat last Friday compared China’s behavior in pursuit of territory in the South China Sea to that of Russia in eastern Ukraine.

A day later, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said changing position on China’s claims to the South China Sea would shame the country’s ancestors, while not facing up to infringements of Chinese sovereignty there would shame its children.

(Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Paul Tait)

Source: Reuters “Images show Chinese airstrip on man-made Spratly island nearly finished”