Early this morning, China launched some kind of reusable spacecraft into space — possibly a spaceplane — a mysterious vehicle that is drawing comparisons to the US’s classified X-37B spaceplane currently in orbit around Earth. Similar to the X-37B, China’s spaceplane will remain in orbit “for a period of time” but the country claims that the vehicle is meant to further the “peaceful use of space.”
It’s unclear exactly what the spacecraft looks like, as there aren’t any official renders or photos of the vehicle. However, rumors popped up earlier this year that a spaceplane mission might be happening sometime in 2020, according to Andrew Jones, a freelance reporter specializing in China’s space program.
He notes that a spaceplane launch falls in line with China’s stated goals for space exploration. “China has been looking into a few different concepts for spaceplanes for quite a few years,” Jones tells The Verge. And in 2017, official state media said that China’s main space contractor was “working on some type of reusable experimental spacecraft which would be capable of landing horizontally,” he says.
China can be relatively secretive about its launches, but there was barely any information released leading up to this mission. Jones noted that speculation of some kind of special flight increased after China made modifications to its launch tower for the Long March 2F rockets at China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. “So the thinking was, ‘Okay they’re modifying the top part of the launch tower to accommodate something which is wider in diameter,’” says Jones.
Additionally, a mission patch, possibly for this mission, popped up on social media earlier this year, he says. Then yesterday, flight restrictions were released to airplane pilots, telling them to stay clear of the area above the launch site, indicating a launch of the Long March 2F was imminent.
New Chinese satellite….uhhh not exactly “just a satellite”….launch. From Jiuquan. Tomorrow. Around 05:30 UTC.
And this one is a BIG one. One that will trigger responses like below after it launches. pic.twitter.com/geoOFKE16A
— Cosmic Penguin (@Cosmic_Penguin) September 3, 2020
China’s state media, Xinhua, said the launch was a success, simply referring to the payload as a “reusable test spacecraft.” It’s unclear exactly what the vehicle will be doing while in orbit, though China says “it will carry out reusable technology verification as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.” The Air Force is already tracking objects from the launch, and satellite trackers are trying to work out the exact time the rocket took off.
Now people will just have to wait to see what happens to the possible spaceplane and when it lands. Jones says the abrupt launch may come as a surprise to people, but it really just falls in line with China’s state space goals. “There’s lots of interest in China in spaceplanes,” he says, adding, “They’ve said that they’re going to do this, and they seem to be doing it kind of somewhat on schedule.”