May 10, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Mysterious Chinese Spaceplane Returns to Earth After 276 Days in Orbit

The most secretive space missions any of the various facets of the U.S. space program have embarked on are those of the mysterious X-37 robotic spaceplane operated by the U.S. Air Force. Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which has given the missions their names of OTV-1 through OTV-6, the spaceplane is launched and landed in secret, its missions are highly classified, and the only real news released generally has to do with bragging about the length of its missions – the last one landed on November 12, 2022, after spending 908 days in orbit. The only missions more secretive than those of the X-37 are those of China’s spaceplane – a mysterious craft believed to look similar to the X-37 which just landed on May 8, 2023, after 276 days in space. What do we know about it … and should we be concerned about this secretive corner of the international space race?

A depiction of the US Air Force X-37 spaceplane

“The reusable test spacecraft successfully launched by our country at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center successfully returned to the scheduled landing site on May 8 after flying in orbit for 276 days. The complete success of this test marks an important breakthrough in my country's research on reusable spacecraft technology, which will provide a more convenient and inexpensive way to and from the peaceful use of space in the future. (Source: Xinhua News Agency)”

While the X-37s (X-37A and X-37B) were both made for NASA by Boeing, the space agency contracts with a number of companies for its rockets, capsules and equipment. On the other hand, the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is the primary contractor for China’s space program – the China National Space Administration (CNSA) – so it is breaking no state secret in bragging  about the accomplishment of its unmanned little shuttle-like craft … especially since no photographs of it were released. In fact, there are no public images of the craft that most media sources refer to as “China Spaceplane” or the “Reusable Experimental Spacecraft (CSSHQ).”

As far as can be determined, this is the second flight of the China Spaceplane. The first was launched on September 6, 2020, on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China. That spaceplane landed successfully two days later at an airbase at Lop Nur – a dried salt lake bed located between the Taklamakan and Kumtag deserts in the southeastern portion of the Xinjiang region in northwest China. While the launch was detected and the flight was tracked by U.S. satellites, no photographs were released.

That was the only mission of the China spaceplane until August 4, 2022, when it was launched again on a Long March 2F. Those tracking this flight saw the Chinese Spaceplane change orbital inclination, change orbital shapes, change orbital altitudes, and most of all, change the level of concern about what its secret mission might be.

“In a latest development the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron has tracked an object close to the spaceplane. The database added a new entry for an object in a similar orbit to the spacecraft Oct. 31 (NORAD ID 54218 (2022-093J COSPAR ID)).  The object—the nature of which is unknown—is likely in very close proximity to the spacecraft and thus only entered into the database once it could be discerned to be a separate, discrete object with a high level of confidence.”

According to Space News and other sources, sometime between October 24 and October 30, 2022, the Chinese Spaceplane launched or released at least one small object. The object maintained a constant distance between itself and the spaceplane, suggesting either it was tethered to it or operating under its own thrusters. Space watchers said at the time this should not have been a surprise – the spaceplane’s first flight saw it release an object as well, possibly the primary element of its mission. While the spaceplane landed, the object was detected continuously broadcasting S-band transmissions for weeks. Some experts speculate the object could be a small satellite monitoring the spaceplane in a simulation of future missions where they might monitor satellites launched by the U.S. or other space programs. Others suggest the object is an auxiliary service module to the spaceplane. Whatever its purpose, the Chinese space program decided on the second mission that the more, the merrier.

“This time 18 SDS tracked seven objects in orbit along with the spaceplane (NORAD: 53357). While some are debris from the Long March 2F second stage, one or both of a pair of unknown objects could be inspector satellites to track the main spacecraft.”

There has been concern around the world about space debris falling on populated areas and apparently China is no exception. Photos and videos of debris retrieved from the launch in August appeared on the Internet (view photos here and a video here) after they were retrieved and exhibited at a middle school in Jiyuan in the Henan province. The key piece was a fairing – an external shroud which covered the spaceplane to reduce drag during the launch. From the fairing, it is estimated that the winged Chinese spaceplane is no more than 4.2 meters (13.75 feet) in diameter and 12.7 meters (41.66 feet) in length – making it about the size and shape of the U.S. X-37B spaceplane.

An X-37 inside the nose cone of a rocket

“Small re-usable spaceplane, possibly associated with China's space station programme and maybe intended for long duration missions. Vehicle used to test launch and landing technology and spacecraft materials.”

Should we be worried about the successful launch, extended mission and successful return of China’s uncrewed spaceplane? It is difficult to say since even dedicated space watchers like Orbital Focus have discerned very little about its mission. It is reusable, as is the two-stage-to-orbit space transportation system. CASIC, a sister giant defense and space contractor, is working on its own spaceplane, named Tengyun.  Other than that, not much else has been revealed to the public about the secretive Chinese Spaceplane. Does that mean the U.S. government and others don’t know any more … or don’t want to reveal what they know? The U.S. Air Force X-37 program is still ahead in number and length of missions, but little is known of them either. It seems puzzling that both space programs are so secretive about a spacecraft whose design is decades old and no longer being used for space transport. Could it be a cover for another even more secretive purpose?

We will continue to watch the skies for anything more we can learn about these mysterious spaceplanes.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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