China has successfully landed its highly secretive experimental spacecraft after a two-day mission that state-run news agency Xinhua said achieved “key breakthroughs in researching the spacecraft’s reusable technologies.”
According to the Hong-Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP), an official memo warned staff and visitors attending the launch on September 4 not to record video or take photos of the lift-off, and to avoid talking about the event online.
However, a report by state-run media outlet CGTN revealed that the vehicle was carried into space aboard a Long March-2F rocket (pictured below on a different mission) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia, with the space plane reportedly making a runway landing on Sunday.
Few details are known about the Chinese spacecraft, though Xinhua says the vehicle will provide “more convenient and cheaper transport for the peaceful use of space in the future.”
When the SCMP previously asked for more information about the spacecraft, a military source hinted that “maybe you can take a look at the U.S. X-37B.”
The uncrewed X-37B looks like a smaller version of the Space Shuttle. While we know more about the X-37B than we do about China’s new spacecraft, the U.S. also keeps under wraps many of the details associated with its vehicle. The U.S. Air Force does say, however, that its spacecraft has two primary objectives: Developing “reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” but it offers little more in the way of concrete detail.
The X-37B, which recently picked up a prestigious trophy for “advancing the performance, efficiency, and safety of air and space vehicles,” is currently in orbit on its sixth mission after launching aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket in May 2020. Its fifth mission, which ended in October 2019 after 780 days in low-Earth orbit, broke its own record for time spent in space by 63 days.
It may be early days for China’s secretive spacecraft, but its recent voyage, coming in the wake of other ambitious missions such as those to the moon and more recently Mars, is yet more evidence of the nation’s growing interest in space technology.