After nine months in orbit, the mysterious Chinese space plane has landed for the second time, making the nation one of the few entities to have successfully launched and recovered a reusable spacecraft.
“The complete success of this experiment marks a significant breakthrough in our country’s research into reusable spacecraft technology,” Xinhua, a Chinese state media agency, said. reported earlier this month.
However, the Chinese government has released very little additional information about the craft; details of its design, capabilities and performance remain unclear.
Experts believe the Chinese plane is likely similar to the Boeing X-37B, a american space plane which debuted in 2010. Kevin Pollpeterresearcher at the Naval Analysis Center, said Nature.com that the revelation of the X-37B raised concerns within the Chinese government about the craft’s military potential. It’s possible this prompted the country’s space program, which is closely tied to its military, to start developing its own version, Pollpeter said.
Like the X-37B, the Chinese craft appears to be unmanned and relatively small. It likely first flew in September 2020, completing a short two-day stint in orbit before returning to ground. Its most recent mission began in August 2022, when it lifted off on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington, DC. The exact purpose of the mission remains unclear.
According to the CSIS report, the craft launched an “object” into orbit during October. The object apparently disappeared in January, only to suddenly reappear on satellite tracking radar in March. Experts believe this could indicate the plane has some sort of satellite-removal capability, like a robotic arm.
“[The Chinese] have worked extensively with robot arms in other settings, such as the Chinese space station,” Jonathan McDowellan astrophysicist from the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Nature.
If so, the aircraft’s primary purpose could be to repair damaged satellites or clear orbital debris. However, this does not exclude military capabilities – whether for the Chinese aircraft or for the X-37B. Until more details come out, however, the best we can do is speculate.