China Has a Robot Space Shuttle?? Beijing Says ‘Reusable Experimental Spacecraft’ Returns After 2 Days in Space
The American, equally experimental X-37 has flown six times
China launched an experimental reusable spacecraft into orbit on Friday (Sept. 4), with few details about what the spacecraft will do.
A report from Chinese state media’s Xinhua said the launch was successful and that a Long March 2F rocket sent the spacecraft into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, but it provided no information about exact launch time or what technologies the spacecraft will test.
“After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space,” Xinhua said in the report.
“Airspace closure notices released Thursday provided the first indication of an imminent launch,” Space News wrote. “No images of the spacecraft nor the launch have so far been released. An apparent higher-than-usual level of security surrounding the mission also prevented bystander images appearing on social media.”
In earlier reports, China said it planned reusable Earth-to-orbit space vehicles that would take off and land like an airplane, horizontally. Officials from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation added in 2017 that they had finished several ground tests for engines and other components.
The possible Chinese space plane project comes as the United States Air Force is working on its own reusable space plane, called the X-37B.
The Air Force project has flown four times in space so far, bringing secret payloads into space for months at a time.
Other winged vehicles have made it to orbit before these projects. NASA’s now-retired space shuttle program flew 135 missions with astronauts on board between 1981 and 2011. A similar Soviet Union vehicle called Buran flew a single uncrewed mission in 1988 before the program was canceled in 1993, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Private companies are working on space planes, too. Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo has flown into space during test missions (at least, by the definition of the U.S. military). Virgin Galactic plans to fly customers and cargo aboard SpaceShipTwo in the coming years. Also, Sierra Nevada Corp. plans to fly NASA cargo to the International Space Station, as well as cargo and astronauts for other customers, on its Dream Chaser spacecraft.
China’s first reusable spaceplane successfully lands after 2-day flight
China had kept the military-run space mission secretive and low-key, with no photograph or video footage of the launch and landing made public. Beijing said the flight would make space missions convenient and cheap.
China’s first reusable spacecraft landed Sunday at Jiuquan after spending two days in orbit, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Chinese officials said the probe would lead to cheaper round-trips to space.
The flight “marks an important breakthrough in our country’s research on reusable spacecraft” that promises a “more convenient and inexpensive way” to reach space, Xinhua said.
Beijing kept the mission secretive, releasing only very few details about the spacecraft.
It was launched on Friday aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s desert northwest.
State media have yet to publish any photos of the aircraft or the video footage of its launch and landing.
Chinese authorities gave no details about the craft’s technology. Some commentators on Chinese social media compared it to the US Air Force’s X-37B, an autonomous Boeing spaceplane that can remain in orbit for long periods of time before flying back to Earth on its own.
China’s space ambitions
In 2017, China announced it would launch a spacecraft in 2020 that can fly like an aircraft and would be reusable. It said the technology would increase the frequency of launches and lower mission costs.
It is, however, not known if the experimental spacecraft launched on Friday, was a fixed-wing craft like the US Space Shuttle.
The first Chinese astronaut went into orbit in 2003. Last year, China became the first country to land a robot rover on the moon’s little-seen far side. A probe carrying another robot rover is on the way to Mars.
The US and the former Soviet Union both flew reusable spacecraft – the US space shuttle flew 134 missions from the 1980s until 2011, after which the US military developed the X-37, a robot glider that made its sixth flight in May.
The Soviet spacecraft, Buran, orbited the Earth twice during its single flight in 1988.
Source: Deutsche Welle