Possible design of China’s space plane.
Source: Homem do Espaco/Twitter

China’s small re-usable space plane returned to Earth Monday, touching down after 276 days of in-orbit operation.

China state media noted that “a reusable experimental spacecraft on Monday successfully returned to its scheduled landing site at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.”

“The success of the experiment marks an important breakthrough in China’s research on reusable spacecraft technologies, which will provide more convenient and affordable round-trip methods for the peaceful use of space in the future.”

Image credit: Robert Christy/Orbital Focus

Launch, landing technology

Reports space tracker Robert Christy of Orbital Focus, the vehicle is possibly associated with China’s space station program and might be intended for long duration missions.

“Vehicle used to test launch and landing technology and spacecraft materials. May be the same craft that flew an earlier mission in 2020. Released a companion satellite to conduct rendezvous and capture experiments during 2022 and 2023. Re-entered 2023 May 8 for landing on the runway at Lop Nor at about 00:20 UTC,” Christy tweets.

U.S. Space Force X-37B vehicle prior to flight, the program’s sixth long-duration mission.

Copycat craft?

Some experts liken the Chinese space plane to the Boeing-built, U.S. Space Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

On that program’s sixth mission, the unpiloted X-37B craft flew for a milestone making 908 days, landing November 12, 2022 at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.

But what’s behind China’s space plane testing…and what next?

Captured companion

“I think they’ve simply advanced a further step towards whatever is their goal for that vehicle. And they’ve done it in the way China always does it – incrementally. First the test flight then this more-complex nine month flight,” Christy told Inside Outer Space. “I don’t know whether we’ve seen the same vehicle fly twice or two different vehicles, but my money would be on it being a re-flight.”

Christy adds that both missions of this type of Chinese craft have involved releasing satellites and rendezvousing with a second object.

Artwork depicts X-37B in Earth orbit.
Credit: Boeing

“On the second mission, both the space plane and the companion satellite made significant orbital maneuvers and the companion was captured at least two times before being taken onboard and brought back to Earth,” Christy adds.

Space plane roles

Trying to second guess a third mission would be foolhardy, Christy says, “but when it happens it will be an obvious evolution of this one.”

In contrasting China’s space plane with the U.S. X-37B endeavor, Christy says the Chinese vehicle is comparable with the U.S. X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) but the aims of the two programs are not necessarily identical, he senses.

“OTV’s role is to provide a platform to carry out long duration missions followed by return to Earth. China’s vehicle has already demonstrated a capability of launching and retrieving satellites,” Christy concludes.



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