China’s enigmatic space plane has touched down for the second time following a remarkable nine-month journey in orbit, solidifying the nation’s position as one of the select few capable of launching and retrieving a reusable spacecraft.
According to Xinhua, a Chinese state media agency, this experiment’s resounding triumph represents a significant advancement in the country’s pursuit of reusable spacecraft technology.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government has divulged scant information regarding the craft, leaving its design, capabilities, and performance uncertain.
According to experts, the Chinese space plane resembles the Boeing X-37B, a U.S. space plane that debuted in 2010.
The unveiling of the X-37B caused the Chinese government to express concerns about its military capabilities, as Kevin Pollpeter, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses.
This concern may have prompted China’s space program, closely intertwined with its military, to develop its own version.
Like the X-37B, the Chinese space plane appears unmanned and relatively compact. It is believed to have conducted its inaugural flight in September 2020, spending two days in orbit before returning to Earth.
The most recent mission of the Chinese space plane commenced in August 2022. According to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington, D.C., the craft was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center aboard a Long March 2F rocket in northern China.
The precise objectives of this mission remain unclear.
As per the CSIS report, it was observed that in October, the spacecraft deployed an unidentified “object” into orbit.
Surprisingly, the object vanished in January but resurfaced on satellite tracking radar in March.
Analysts suggest that this occurrence could imply the presence of satellite removal capabilities on the plane, potentially involving a robotic arm.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, mentioned that the Chinese have extensively worked on robot arms in various contexts, such as the Chinese space station.
If this assumption holds, the primary objective of the plane could be satellite repairs or the removal of space debris.
However, it is essential to note that the plane’s military capabilities, either for the Chinese space plane itself or the X-37B, cannot be ruled out.