Ever since China claimed success in secretly launching an experimental spacecraft, experts have been pondering what it is and what it has done in space.
The spacecraft ̵1; mounted on a Long March 2F rocket – was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China on September 4 and returned safely to Earth two days in orbit.
“The successful flight marks the country’s significant success in reusable spacecraft research and is expected to offer convenient and low-cost travel for the peaceful use of space,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency said in a statement. September 6 in a brief report.
But unlike recent high-profile Chinese space missions, very few details have emerged about the vehicle and no visuals have been released.
Chinese authorities are very strict about the nature of short-term travel and what technologies are being tested.
The exact launch and landing times have not been disclosed, nor has the landing site been considered the Taklamakan Desert, in northwest China.
“There are many priorities to this launch. The spacecraft is new, the launch method is different as well. That is why we need to make sure there is additional security,” a military source told the South China Morning Post (SCMP). .
An official memo circulating on social media also warned staff and visitors at the launch site not to film the lift-off or discuss it online, according to SCMP.
The launch of the vehicle may come as a surprise – there was no official announcement prior to the launch – but China has been working on such technology for the past decade. Three years ago, China said it would launch an aircraft in 2020 that would “fly in the sky like an aircraft” and be reusable.
A reusable spacecraft – as the name implies could make many space trips – thereby potentially lowering the overall cost of launch activity. A traditional one-off spacecraft – worth tens of millions of dollars – is practically given useless after a single mission.
The experimental vessel reached an altitude of approximately 350km, in accordance with China’s previous crewed flights. The spacecraft also released an unknown object into orbit before returning to Earth.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the mission aims to test vehicle systems such as power, temperature, stability and to prove that it can re-enter and land correctly.
Once the test is complete, such a vehicle can be used to launch and adjust satellites, survey Earth, as well as take astronauts and goods into and out of orbit, possibly at a planned Chinese space station in the future.
Comparisons with US X-37 space station
The size and shape of the Chinese ship will remain unclear but it is widely believed to be a type of unmanned aircraft similar to the US Air Force-powered X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.
The recent mission could be attributed to the Shenlong project – or sacred dragon-space aircraft, which has been in development for some time, according to reports. A second Chinese reusable aircraft called the Tengyun, or cloud climber, is also in the works.
If confirmed as an aircraft, China will be the only third country to successfully launch such an aircraft into orbit after the US and the former Soviet Union.
The European Space Agency is working on its own available orbital vehicle called the Space Rider, while India is also said to be developing a shuttle-like craft.
The X-37B, which resembles a small space shuttle, has been in orbit since late May following its launch in the sixth assignment. Little is known about the X-37B’s missions, prompting speculation that the planes could be used for intelligence activity or testing weapons in space.
Similarly, the lack of publicity has led to speculation that the Chinese spacecraft may also have some military use.
“The secret, I’m sure, is simply because it’s a military project,” added McDowell, who is closely following the mission.
There is little difference between China’s civilian and military space programs that reinforce suspicions about ambitions in the Beijing galaxy.
“It makes sense to assume that the tester has some military applications, perhaps new satellite equipment and intelligence technologies,” said Bleddyn Bowen, an academic in space policy at the University of Leicester.
“We have to wait and see how many future flights like China can take to see if it matches the size of the X-37B,” he told the BBC.
The Chinese state-run Global Times, citing observers, said the country should have the ability to strike anywhere on Earth within half an hour, as the X-37B does.
The growing ambition in the Chinese expanse
Whatever its purpose, the reusable system marks another milestone for China’s ambitious space program, and comes weeks after the launch of Tianwen-1, China’s latest attempt to reach Mars.
China has poured significant funding into space efforts, and last year became the first country to send an uncrewed rover to the end of the Moon.
President Xi Jinping has also thrown his support behind the country’s expansive efforts and China’s state media regularly throws “dream space” as a step on the path to “national rejuvenation”.
Earlier this year it also completed the satellite network for the BeiDou navigation system, a successor to the US GPS system. China is also working towards sending astronauts to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.
“If it really is an aircraft, and not just a reusable capsule like the Dragon, then it represents a big step forward in China’s space technology because wing re-entry is really hard to do,” he said. McDowell.
“China is in the back of the galaxy but is changing the space program in all fields and is now rapidly gaining momentum. The launch of the spacecraft is another reflection there.”
Bleddyn Bowen added that the launch of the spacecraft is “just another part of China that is becoming a comprehensive space force using space technology for the purposes of war, development, and prestige like everyone else.”