Science

China launches mysterious reusable ‘test spacecraft’ into Earth orbit

For the second time in two years, China has launched a secret reusable vehicle with a mysterious mission into low Earth orbit.

China’s state news agency Xinhua reported that the Long March 2F rocket carrying a “test spacecraft” launched from the Jiuquan Space Center in the Gobi Desert on Thursday (August 4; Aug. 5 Beijing time).

“The test spacecraft will remain in orbit for a specified period of time before returning to a planned landing site in China, during which reusable and orbital service technologies will be tested as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of outer space. Xinhua writes (will open in a new tab) (in Chinese; Google translation).

Related: Latest news about China’s space program

That’s all we know; Xinhua’s update is only two paragraphs long and does not include further details. But the mysterious craft is believed to be a robotic spaceplane, possibly about the same size as the US Space Force’s X-37B, based on the Long March 2F’s significant payload capacity, SpaceNews reports. (will open in a new tab).

China also launched a reusable test spacecraft in September 2020 in the same cloud of secrecy. The craft – which may or may not be the same one that launched Thursday – stayed in the air for two days and fired a small payload into orbit before landing in China, SpaceNews notes.

By comparison, the X-37B spaceplane has been orbiting Earth for more than 800 days on its latest mystery mission, the sixth of the X-37B program. The Space Force is believed to have two Boeing-built 8.8-meter spaceplanes in its fleet.

The launch of Jiuquan was part of an extremely busy day in spaceflight. There were six rocket launches Thursday, starting with Rocket Lab’s launch of a spy satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Agency at 1:00 AM ET (05:00 GMT).

Also on Thursday, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched a missile attack warning satellite for the Space Force; Blue Origin sends six people into suborbital space; China launched TECIS 1 Earth observation satellite; and the South Korean lunar probe Danuri launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrations by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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