With no official announcement or warning of any kind, China’s military-run space program launched its first reusable experimental spacecraft on Friday, September 4. The craft remained in orbit for two days before landing back at the launch site, yet no details of the vessel’s specifications or function have been revealed.
Widely believed to be a space plane, the craft was launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. Only after the vehicle reached orbit did Chinese state media announce the launch, saying only that the craft would “test reusable technologies during its flight.”
Another tight-lipped press release was issued on September 6 announcing that the spacecraft had landed. The statement proclaimed that “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.”
China has been developing a space plane for some time, yet the sudden and secretive nature of this launch has raised a few eyebrows and fueled speculation about the country’s ambitions in orbit. Reports suggest that the craft reached 350 kilometers (217 miles) in altitude, yet its size and shape remain a mystery, as does its purpose.
For instance, it is unclear if the vehicle is intended to carry humans on crewed spaceflights – much like NASA’s famous Space Shuttle, which flew more than 130 missions over 30 years – or if it will resemble the US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane, which has so far flown six clandestine missions.
Whatever its function, the reusable craft marks another major milestone for China’s space program, which last year became the first in the world to land a rover on the far side of the Moon and recently launched the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars.