China has its own secret space plane, and it just landed


China has its own secret space plane, and it just landed

Artist’s impression of China’s Xinlong reusable space plane. Credit: Institute of Space Studies of China

A lot has changed since the last space age. Unlike the days of Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury and Apollo, the current era is not defined by two superpowers constantly vying for dominance and competition. More than ever, international cooperation is the name of the game, as space agencies come together to advance common goals of exploration and science.

Likewise, there’s the way the private space sector has become a major participant, providing everything from launch services and commercial payloads to constellations and space crews.

But in some ways, old habits die hard. Since the turn of the century, China has emerged as a major power in space, to the point of becoming a direct competitor to NASA’s human space programs. Over the past few years, China has developed a reusable autonomous spaceplane to compete with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

This aircraft, known as Shenlong (“Divine Dragon”), recently concluded its second flight test flight after spending 276 days in orbit. Although details were sparse, Chinese state media company Xinua declared the flight an achievement for China’s space programme.

China’s experimental reusable space plane, the Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi (CSSHQ), has remained shrouded in mystery since its debut. During its previous test flight (CSSHQ 1), the spaceplane took off on September 4, 2020, and spent two brief days in orbit. for him The second flight (CSSHQ-2), the Chinese spaceplane took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on August 4, 2022, atop a Long March-2F/T (CZ-2) rocket, and reportedly landed at Juiquan again on Monday. May 8th.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua issued a statement shortly after the plane landed (it is said to be in Jiuquan). The spaceplane’s manufacturer, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), re-shared Xinhua’s statement via Chinese social media platform Weixin:

“The reusable experimental spacecraft launched by our country at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center successfully returned to the scheduled landing site on May 8 after being in orbit for 276 days. The complete success of this test marks an important progress in my country’s research on reusability spacecraft technology, which will provide a more convenient and cheaper way to and from the peaceful use of space in the future.”

No details were given about the mission, the spacecraft, or the operations conducted in orbit. However, Space News correspondent Andrew Jones has summarized and outlined CCSHQ’s activities during the test flight in a recent article.

“The spacecraft performed many small and large orbital maneuvers during its flight, with adjustments made in recent weeks in preparation for landing,” he wrote. “The landing likely took place at the Lop Nur military base in Xinjiang. Information about the orbit of the spacecraft indicates that the orbital trajectory over the facility at approximately 0020 UTC was an opportunity to land.”

As Jones wrote in August 2022, the spacecraft also launched a small satellite into orbit 90 days into its flight. While the purpose and nature of this satellite are unknown, tracking data obtained by the United States Space Forces (USSF) revealed that the small satellite remained very close to the spacecraft. While this flight was a huge step for China’s research into reusable spacecraft technology, it pales in comparison to the achievements of the X-37B, which has flown six test flights since April 2010.

During its last flight (OTV-6), OTV spent more than nine hundred days in space and deployed a series of science experiments while in orbit. Like CCSHQ’s activities, details about the OTV flights have been kept top secret. However, various sources have confirmed that the goals include developing orbital reconnaissance vehicles for military use and testing reusable spacecraft technologies, hypersonic engines, and autonomous guidance systems.

In terms of reusability, China is developing spacecraft as part of a larger program, including a very heavy launch system similar to SpaceX’s Starship.

The concept was introduced by the China Academy of Vehicle Launch Technology (CALT) in April 2021 during the sixth annual Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition (also known as “National Space Day”) in Nanjing.

The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) is also pursuing development of its own reusable spaceplane, known as the Tengyun (“cloud passenger”). According to a video released by CASIC during the 2021 Zhuhai Air Show (shown above), this vehicle will be part of a two-stage launch system based on an air launch vehicle (similar to Virgin Galactic).

This latest development demonstrates the progress China has made in recent years. In terms of space station technology, robotic exploration on the Moon (Chang’e program) and Mars (Tianwen-1 orbiters and Zhurong rover), and manned spaceflight, China has emerged as a world power.

Later in the decade, China plans to send its first astronauts to the moon and establish the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), in direct competition with NASA’s Artemis program. In 2033, they hope to send the first manned missions to Mars, exactly when NASA hopes to do the same.

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