Though few details are known, China launched and landed a reusable spacecraft late last week. The craft might have deployed a satellite while in orbit. Chinese media outlet Xinhua News reported on September 6, 2020, that a Long March-2F rocket sent the experimental spacecraft up on September 4 from the Gobi Desert Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, and that the craft touched down as scheduled after a two-day in-orbit operation. The Xinhau report provided no information about exact launch time, landing location, or what technologies the spacecraft tested. It said:
The reusable spacecraft successfully launched by my country at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center successfully returned to the scheduled landing site on September 6, after flying in orbit for 2 days.
The successful flight marked the country’s important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research, and is expected to offer convenient and low-cost round-trip transport for the peaceful use of the space.
The new spacecraft may be linked with China’s plans to build and operate a reusable space plane by the year 2020, although that connection has not been confirmed.
China calls the new spacecraft Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi, which translates as Repeat-Use Test Spacecraft (or, more loosely, Reusable Test Spacecraft).
Analysis by space experts shows an object in space that wasn’t there before the September 4 launch. The analysis suggests that the Chinese spacecraft released a satellite while in orbit, although the satellite’s purpose is pure speculation, as neither Chinese nor United States space-tracking organizations have released details.
Interesting! A new object (2020-063G, nr 46395) has been catalogued, in a 332 x 348 km orbit. My analysis suggests it was ejected from China's experimental spacecraft near 22:25 UT on the 5th, about two revolutions before landing.
(HT to @planet4589 for noting the extra object)
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) September 6, 2020
Likewise, China has not so far released images of the spacecraft or the launch; an apparent higher-than-usual level of security surrounding the mission also prevented bystander images from appearing on social media. These precautions are widely said in the west to be “unusual,” given China’s assurance that the intention of the mission is peaceful.
Xinhua had reported in 2017 that China was planning a reusable space vehicle that would take off and land horizontally, like an airplane. In fact, officials from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation added in 2017 that it had already fulfilled several ground tests for engines and other components, for such a craft. But Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589 on Twitter) – who comments frequently on the spacecraft program – has stressed that we cannot assume that the spacecraft launched September 4 is a space plane with wings.
– "reusable" doesn't necessarily mean "winged".
– still *could* be a Dragon style capsule with a parachute landing in the Taklamakan somewhere
– exact launch and landing times not announced by China
So we should be clear about what is known and what is a guess.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) September 6, 2020
Other winged vehicles have made it to orbit previously. For example, NASA’s now-retired space shuttle program flew 135 missions with astronauts onboard between 1981 and 2011. A similarly reusable Soviet Union vehicle called Buran flew a single uncrewed mission in 1988 before the program was canceled in 1993, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed.
In the present era, in the U.S., private companies are working hard to develop and test space planes and reusable rocketry. Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo, which aims to fly customers and cargo aboard in the coming years, has flown into space during test missions. Similarly, the Sierra Nevada Corporation plans to fly NASA cargo to the International Space Station on its Dream Chaser spacecraft. Competitors like SpaceX and Blue Origin are making headlines every week for their record-setting accomplishments with fully reusable space vehicles.
Meanwhile, there’s already a rocket graveyard at the bottom of Earth’s ocean, littered with the exhausted shells of thousands of rockets used to send satellites and people to space. It’s humbling to contemplate these relics of a past age, but also important to notice that the lack of reusable rocket technology restricts space flight to the richest nations only.
Now, with the evolution of reusable rockets through such commercial companies, the price tag on space exploration and utilization is decreasing. The recent milestones of the U.S. private space companies – perhaps in conjunction with China’s Reusable Test Spacecraft – may be acting as a gateway of opportunity for interplanetary transport and the first manned mission to Mars.
Bottom line: Although few details are known, and no images have been released, the Chinese did apparently launch a reusable spacecraft on September 4, 2020. It appears to have deployed a satellite to orbit and then returned to Earth safely 2 days later.
Lia N. Rovira is a science communicator and freelance journalist, contributing both as a field correspondent and writer. She is also the founder of the reputable space blog (SkyFeed) and is a former NASA Aerospace Scholar.