A Long March 2F rocket, seen here launching the Shenzhou-12 crew spacecraft in June 2021, launched China's reusable test spacecraft Aug. 4, 2022. Credit: CASC
HELSINKI — China sent a highly-classified reusable experimental spacecraft into orbit Thursday, two years after a similarly clandestine mission.
A Long March 2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert Aug. 4, sending a “reusable test space” into low Earth orbit, Chinese language state media Xinhua reported.
Xinhua confirmed the successful launch around three hours after the 12:00 p.m. Eastern opening of a launch window, indicated by airspace closure notices issued days earlier.
The terse report stated that the test spacecraft will “operate in orbit for a period of time” before returning to its intended landing site in China. Technical verification of reusable and in-orbit services will be carried out as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space, according to a machine translation of the report.
U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron (18 SDS) later tracked the spacecraft in 346 by 593 kilometer orbit inclined by 50 degrees.
China’s space authorities have not released any images of the launch or related operations from this or a similar profile mission launched in 2020. The report did not state the mission to be a second flight of the spacecraft.
While little is known about the spacecraft, it is speculated, based on previous statements and activities, that the vehicle is a spaceplane. It is possibly an orbital segment which will operate with a reusable suborbital stage, apparently tested in 2021. The latter involved a vertical takeoff and horizontal landing.
The Long March 2F usually launches China’s Shenzhou crewed missions and has a payload capacity of just over eight metric tons to low Earth orbit, suggesting that the spacecraft could be similar in size and function to U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane. The Long March 2F and its payload fairing would have been modified to accommodate the launch the reusable test spacecraft.
China’s previous orbital test of a reusable experimental spacecraft took place in September 2020, with the spacecraft spending just under two days in orbit. It released a small payload before landing in China.
While there is little information about the mission, the project appears to fit into space transportation development plans outlined by CASC, China’s main space contractor, and its major subsidiaries.
CASC has previously iterated plans to develop low-cost, reliable access to space, including reusable launch vehicles and a spaceplane.
A once-every-five-year space “white paper” released by the State Council Information Office in January stated that China would, “continue to strengthen research into key technologies for reusable space transport systems, and conduct test flights accordingly.”
Chen Hongbo, from CASC’s China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told Science and Technology Daily (Chinese) in 2017 that an under-development reusable spacecraft would be capable of carrying both crew and payloads, would be tested in 2020.
Long Lehao, a veteran chief designer of the Long March rocket series, last month presented a range of space transportation concepts during a public lecture, including a spaceplane render, viewable here.
Any such project will however face large technological and other challenges, Bleddyn Bowen of the University of Leicester told SpaceNews.
“Spaceplanes and reusable orbital vehicles have come and gone, and come back again. There can be some marginal and varied uses for them but they are extremely expensive compared to conventional rockets because the stresses of atmospheric re-entry wreaks havoc on the materials and structures,” Bowen said.
“The Chinese development of spaceplane technology will be remarkable if they manage to overcome the problems Dyna-Soar and the Space Shuttle faced, and the challenges SpaceX’s Starship is now facing as well. We should see spaceplane development as part of China’s wider investments in all manner of space technologies, civilian and military, and not as something uniquely threatening or certain to succeed where others have failed.”
Other reusable spacecraft or spaceplane projects are under consideration in China. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), another giant state-owned enterprise, is working on its own spaceplane, named Tengyun.
“Unlike rocket recycling adopted by SpaceX, the spaceplane can take off from an ordinary airport to transport spacecraft into orbit. It will bring about a revolution for future space transportation,” CASIC’s Zhang Hongwen told CCTV in 2018.
In addition, Chinese commercial firm Space Transportation last year raised more than $46.3 millionfor its hypersonic spaceplane plans.
Meanwhile, the U.S. X-37B spaceplane is currently carrying out its sixth mission, which has already extended to more than 800 days in orbit.
CALT has also recently revealed plans to develop a fully-reusable super-heavy lift launch vehicle over the next decade, apparently inspired by the SpaceX Starship project.
Mystery Chinese spacecraft returns to Earth after 276 days
An experimental Chinese spacecraft returned to Earth on Monday after staying in orbit for 276 days, China's state media reported, completing a landmark mission to test the country's reusable space technologies.
The uncrewed spacecraft returned to the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China on Monday as scheduled, according to state media.
No details were given on what the spacecraft was, what technologies were tested, how high it flew, and where its orbits had taken it since its launch in early August 2022. Images of the craft have also yet to be released to the public.
The test marks an "important" breakthrough in China's research into reusable spacecraft technology that will provide a more convenient and inexpensive way to mount future space missions, state media reported.
In 2021, what may have been a similar spacecraft flew to the edge of space and returned to Earth on the same day in a mission that was also kept largely under wraps. It landed on Earth "horizontally," according to China's main space contractor at the time.
Commentators on Chinese social media have speculated that Beijing has been developing a spacecraft like the U.S. Air Force's X-37B, an autonomous spaceplane that can remain in orbit for years.
The uncrewed and reusable X-37B returned to Earth in November last year in its sixth and latest mission, after more than 900 days in orbit.
China’s mystery reusable spaceplane lands after 276 days in orbit
HELSINKI — China’s secretive reusable spaceplane completed its second mission Monday, landing after 276 days in orbit.
China state media and the spacecraft’s maker, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), announced the spacecraft had landed late May 8 Beijing time.
The apparently successful mission was stated to be an important breakthrough in the country’s research on reusable spacecraft technology. No images, landing time nor location were revealed by the terse announcements.
The project will provide a more convenient and inexpensive way to access space for the peaceful use of space in the future, according to the statement.
The reusable test spacecraft launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert Aug. 4 (UTC), 2022.
The spacecraft released an object into orbit, U.S. Space Force tracking data revealed late last year. The small satellite operated in very close proximity to the spaceplane.
This apparent second flight on the secretive spacecraft differs from its first mission in 2020. That flight saw the spaceplane orbit for four days in a 331 by 347-kilometer orbit inclined by 50 degrees. The just completed mission lasted 276 days, with the spacecraft entering an initial 346 by 593 kilometer orbit inclined by 50 degrees, then circularizing the orbit to 597 by 608 kilometers.
The spacecraft performed numerous small and much larger orbital maneuvers during its flight, with adjustments in recent weeks made in preparation for landing.
The landing is likely to have taken place at the Lop Nur military base in Xinjiang. Information on the spacecraft’s orbit suggests an orbital track over the facility around 0020 UTC provided the opportunity for landing, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and tracker of spaceflight activities.
An image from an Umbra synthetic aperture radar satellite suggests recent activity at the Lop Nur site.
China has released little information about the project. The size and mass of the spacecraft is however constrained by the use of the Long March 2F rocket, which can carry just over 8 tons to low Earth orbit.
Clues as to the dimensions and shape of the craft appeared shortly after launch when apparent images of the payload fairing for the mission appeared online.
The spacecraft appears to be related to the development of an orbital segment of a fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit space transportation system. A suborbital segment—featuring a vertical takeoff and horizontal landing—had a second flight in September 2022.
CASC’s reusable spaceplane project last year acquired national level funding from the Natural Science Foundation of China.
CASIC, a sister giant defense and space contractor, is working on its own spaceplane, named Tengyun.
Meanwhile a commercial firm named Space Transportation raised more than $46.3 million for its hypersonic spaceplane plans in 2021. A number of Chinese rocket companies have also created presentations including small spaceplanes launching atop concepts for liquid rockets.
China has been seeking to boost its access to space in a range of ways in recent years, including fostering a commercial space sector which now features a range of operational solid and in-development reusable liquid propellant reusable launch vehicles.
CASC, the country’s main space contractor, is meanwhile developing new, super heavy-lift reusable launch vehicles which enable the country to attempt to land astronauts on the moon and an eventually fully-reusable rocket for conducting large scale space infrastructure missions.
China successfully lands reusable test spacecraft
A reusable experimental spacecraft on Monday successfully returned to its scheduled landing site at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.
The spacecraft returned after 276 days of in-orbit operation. The success of the experiment marks an important breakthrough in China's research on reusable spacecraft technologies, which will provide more convenient and affordable round-trip methods for the peaceful use of space in the future.