China quietly tests launch, recovery of reusable spacecraft tech in secretive two-day test flight

The description of the reusable spacecraft matches China's plans of launching a similar spacecraft three years ago.

China has launched a reusable spacecraft that landed safely after staying in its orbit for two days, state media reported.

The unmanned craft was launched with the help of a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China last week (4 September) and it came back on Sunday, said a Xinhua news report.

The report added that the "successful flight" will be considered as an "important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research" for the country. This will also "offer convenient and low-cost round trip transport for the peaceful use of the space".

However, no detail about the spacecraft’s configuration or size was released in the media report. This has led to the rise in speculation that China was conducting some secretive mission akin to what the United States Air Force did with its X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) in 2017.

A Long March rocket takes off from a launchpad at sea in a first. AP

A Long March rocket takes off from a launchpad at sea in a first. AP

The description of the reusable spacecraft given by China matches with the country’s plans of launching a similar spacecraft three years ago.

In a Xinhua report from 2017, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation had said that the craft would be different from “traditional one-off spacecraft” and “fly into the sky like an aircraft”. The spacecraft was also touted to carry people as well as payload into orbit.

Astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, who is associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, gave some insights about the craft. In a tweet on Sunday, he said “reusable” did not mean the craft was “winged”, that it was a space plane.

The astronomer also announced the name of the payload. He said in a tweet that the name was ‘Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi’ that translated to ‘Repeat Use Test Space Craft’.

There is also a speculation of the craft apparently releasing an object ir orbit before returning. The object was noticed by McDowell and analysed by a Dutch archaeologist Dr Marco Langbroek.

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