Chinese Spaceplane Returns To Earth After Longest Flight So Far

The shadowy Chinese spaceplane, which was launched in August last year, returned to Earth after 276 days in orbit.

byThomas Newdick|
Chinese space plane X-37b
Chinese internet


China has completed its latest test of a reusable space vehicle, according to the country’s state-run media. The uncrewed vehicle — likely a spaceplane that can land in a similar fashion to a traditional plane — is said to have returned to Earth today after 276 days in orbit, following its launch in August last year.

While a major advance for the Chinese space program, the latest mission was still considerably shorter in duration than the record 908 days (or roughly two and a half years) that the U.S. Space Force’s likely similar X-37B reusable spaceplane spent in orbit, before its return late last year. It does, however, signal another significant milestone for China in the increasingly militarized space domain.

Reports — including the official English statement from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, or CASC — that the still-mysterious Chinese craft touched down at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center appear to be erroneous, however. The site, which sits in a part of the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia region, is used for space launches but is not provided with a runway for recoveries of spaceplanes. One possible option for the landing is the remote airbase with a massive runway — 16,400 feet in length — near the Lop Nor nuclear test site in the northwestern portion of the country. This is a facility that we have examined in depth before and has almost certainly been used for spaceplane recovery in the past.

This facility has seen major expansion in the last few years with those improvements still underway. You can see high-resolution imagery of the site from just a few days ago, as well as a time-lapse of the expansion there, below.

A close-up of construction work at the facility near Lop Nor. PHOTO © 2022 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
The mysterious massive runway near Lop Nor that may have been used to recover the spaceplane after its latest mission, seen in a satellite image dated May 1, 2022. PHOTO © 2022 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
A time-lapse view of construction work at the same facility near Lop Nor, as it appeared between March 3 and May 8, 2022. PHOTO © 2022 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Another possible landing site would be the massive Dingxin Test and Training Base located just around 45 miles south of Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. This facility sports large runways, including a remote one accessed by a main taxiway, and hosts many People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) exercises and flight test activities. You can read our full profile on it here.

However, no details were provided about the design of the spacecraft itself or the particular technologies it was testing, and no photographs were released. It has not been revealed what orbital profile it flew, and whether any particular payloads were aboard for this mission.

Nevertheless, China’s state media heralded the latest flight as an “important” breakthrough in terms of developing reusable spacecraft.

The vehicle in question had originally been launched sometime on the night of August 4-5, 2022, via a Long March 2F rocket that was fired from Jiuquan. The U.S. Space Force and independent observers subsequently confirmed the launch, which we reported on at the time.

A satellite image of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Google Earth

A previous suborbital test of what was likely a similar spaceplane, in 2021, also involved a launch from Jiuquan, after which the vehicle landed “horizontally,” later the same day, at Alxa Right Banner Badanjilin Airport, also in Inner Mongolia. You can read more about that mission here.

It’s meanwhile well-known that the state-run CASC has been working for years now on a small spaceplane. In the public realm, it’s been claimed that such a vehicle is for commercial use, although the military applications of a spaceplane that offers a convenient and potentially inexpensive way into orbit, and the ability to stay there for very long periods of time, are clear.

As long ago as 2016, CASC had described plans for a vehicle that is boosted initially by a traditional space launch rocket and then gets the rest of the way with a secondary booster. It would return to Earth in an unpowered mode. The U.S. X-37B, which was first launched in 2010, also uses the same basic concept.

A graphic from circa 2016 depicting the method of operation of one of CASC’s planned spaceplanes. HAN PENGXIN / CHINA ACADEMY OF LAUNCH VEHICLE TECHNOLOGY

Another secretive Chinese “reusable experimental spacecraft” was launched from Jiuquan in 2020, again atop a Long March 2F carrier rocket. That vehicle appeared to have subsequently landed at the same remote airstrip near Lop Nor and could be related to a military spaceplane project called Shenlong. However, the exact relationship, if any, between these presumably different vehicles remains generally unclear.

As for CASC’s spaceplane concepts, at least those that exist in the public realm, these have included a projected design for an 11-ton vehicle with a wingspan of 21 feet that would be capable of carrying five people. The same company has also schemed a larger version of a similar spaceplane design, with the ability to carry up to 20 people.

A computer-generated concept of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology spaceplane. HAN PENGXIN / CHINA ACADEMY OF LAUNCH VEHICLE TECHNOLOGY

Separately, the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, or CAAA, which is part of CASC, has undertaken studies of a two-stage-to-orbit space launch system involving a fast- and high-flying mothership aircraft that carries a reusable spacecraft on top of its fuselage. CAAA released pictures and a brief video showing a wind tunnel test of a model of this concept in 2019, as we discussed at the time.

While Jiuquan is typically associated with space launches in the commercial realm, it’s clear that the Chinese military has at least some involvement in the country’s spaceplane experiments. After all, CASC, as the primary contractor for the Chinese space program, has significant links with the country’s military and Jiuquan is a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base.

For the PLA, a reusable spaceplane could have enormous value as a means to conduct military activities in space, as well as closer to Earth. Beyond inserting certain payloads into orbit, a spaceplane could be outfitted for gathering intelligence or conducting offensive actions against hostile space-based assets or defensive missions to protect friendly ones. As well as weapons of different kinds, a spaceplane, provided it was large enough, could even be used to transport personnel and cargo across large distances at great speeds. The latter is a concept that has gained more traction within the U.S. military in recent years.

There has also been speculation in the past that there could be some kind of connection between the Chinese spaceplane program and its fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). China's FOBS application is centered around a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that goes into space and traverses the globe in an orbital-like fashion before making its run through the atmosphere toward its target.

The speculation seems to originate in the fact that China originally claimed that its FOBS test was actually an experiment involving a reusable spaceplane. China's test did see the craft drop a payload during its terminal run through the atmosphere and U.S. officials say that it could potentially stay in orbit for prolonged periods of time. This does point to some possible connection, but it's only anecdotal at this time.

The fact that China is now operating reusable space vehicles in orbit for prolonged periods is significant in itself, especially given the likely ability of the craft to not only launch but also recover and possibly further manipulate objects in space. This would allow China to have a payload (for example, an intelligence-gathering satellite) in orbit for a long time before retrieving it and bringing it back safely to Earth for further study (or reuse). At the same time, spaceplanes also are capable of dynamically maneuvering, a particularly useful attribute when carrying out sensitive experiments. For now, however, we don’t know exactly what the vehicle was doing during its 276-day voyage and whether it launched (or retrieved) any payloads during that time.

Missions of this kind are, by their nature extremely secretive, and the exact work of the X-37B miniature space shuttle, now operated by the U.S. Space Force has been subject to a great deal of speculation over the years. The X-37B’s record-breaking sixth mission was completed with a return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility last November.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 rests on the flight line at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on November 12, 2022, after it concluded its sixth successful mission that lasted 908 days. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Shank

As well as the impressive length of that sixth mission, it also provided us with a glimpse of the X-37B’s service module, the bolt-on payload package that boosts the number of missions that the vehicle can undertake.

Among the most intriguing missions for the X-37B is what is euphemistically referred to as “orbital warfare.” Again, details are extremely scarce, although we do know that this mission falls within the remit of Space Delta 9, part of the U.S. Space Force. Among others, the unit is tasked with keeping track of potentially hostile activity in space, as well as deterring threats and even potentially defeating them.

A Defense Intelligence Agency infographic shows the many ways one satellite might attack another. DIA

Overall, while the exact nature of the reusable space vehicle involved in China’s latest test remains very much open to speculation, the available evidence points strongly toward a miniature spaceplane-type, X-37B-like concept. China, like the United States, is increasingly exploring new options for getting payloads into space using methods that are faster, more flexible, and less predictable, for which a spaceplane design offers many advantages. It is almost certainly not a coincidence, too, that the Chinese spaceplane program seems to be following the same pattern of flight expansion and mission duration as the X-37B, with increasingly long periods now being spent in orbit. India is also now chasing a similar capability.

At the same time, China already appears to be flexing its muscles in space, for more nefarious means, with Space Force back in 2021 confirming that both China and Russia were launching “reversible attacks,” such as electronic warfare jamming, temporarily blinding optics with lasers, and cyber attacks, on U.S. satellites “every single day.” Having a spaceplane available to conduct these kinds of missions, or carry experimental payloads needed to prove these capabilities, would be of clear benefit ahead of and during any large-scale hostilities between China and the United States, for example.

Whatever its capabilities, having this vehicle remain in orbit for 276 days and then achieve an apparently successful return to Earth provides another indicator of how rapidly China’s space transportation technology is developing, and the clear military implications that come with these advances.

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