China appears to have launched an experimental space plane earlier this morning, which may be the precursor to a vehicle that can carry humans to and from space.
Early on 4 September, China is thought to have launched a Long March 2F rocket from their Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. While there was no official announcement prior to the launch, several observers noticed air traffic restrictions that indicated a launch was taking place.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency later confirmed the launch, saying that a “reusable experimental spacecraft” was on board that would “test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space.”
Orbital data later confirmed that the vehicle had been placed in an orbit up to 350 kilometres in altitude, a similar height to China’s previous crewed flights. Much about the launch remains shrouded in mystery, however, including the size of the vehicle, how long it will remain in space and what it will do in orbit.
China is known to have been working on space plane technology for the past decade, with the country announcing in 2017 that it aimed to fly such a vehicle by 2020. “There have been some clues that this mission might happen,” says Andrew Jones, a journalist who covers the Chinese space programme, including modifications to the launch tower and a potential mission patch referencing the spacecraft. “But the actual timing was a surprise.”
Such a vehicle could take Chinese astronauts to and from orbit, possibly to a planned future Chinese space station. Jean Deville, a space analyst who tracks China’s activities, says a reusable crewed space plane could be part of China’s ambitious crewed space programme, which includes its operational Shenzhou spacecraft and a new deep space vehicle. “A space plane is an ideal technology for atmospheric re-entry due to less brutal accelerations for the human body,” she said.
Another possibility is that the vehicle is more similar to the secretive American X-37B space plane, a small uncrewed reusable craft built by Boeing, which has flown to space multiple times on missions lasting more than a year, performing unknown activities in orbit. “There [are] undeniable military uses for a space plane,” says Deville. “China has shown a strong interest in developing these technologies.”
Regardless of its true purpose, the launch is another signal of China’s growing launch capabilities. “If you look at what they’re doing in the commercial sector, promoting innovation and low-cost launch vehicles, this is part of a wider context of Chinese plans for space transportation,” says Jones. “But it’s hard to say how big this [space plane] is in China’s plans.”
Now, observers will be watching keenly to get more information about the vehicle. “We don’t know if this is a scaled version to test certain technologies, or a full-sized version,” he says. “It’s so vague, so secretive. It’s very interesting, but it’s also quite frustrating.”
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