China’s mystery spaceplane releases object into orbit

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HELSINKI — China’s secretive reusable spaceplane has released an object into orbit, according to tracking data from the U.S. Space Force.

China carried out the second launch of its “reusable experimental spacecraft” from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert atop a Long March 2F rocket Aug. 4.

The spacecraft has now been in orbit for 90 days. Two weeks ago the spacecraft raised its perigee—or the point during its orbit at which a spacecraft is closest to Earth—to shift to a near-circular 597 by 608-kilometer orbit.

In a latest development the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron has tracked an object close to the spaceplane. The Space-track.org 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.

Robert Christy of Orbital Focus notes that the release of the object could have taken place anytime between Oct. 24 and Oct. 31, performing station-keeping to remain close to the spaceplace.

China has not released any updates on the mission since a terse statement announcing the launch of the spacecraft. No images of the craft have been published.

This is not the first time the spacecraft has ejected an object. China’s spaceplane released an object around two orbits before deorbiting at the end of its first, two-day mission in September 2020. The object broadcast S-band transmissions for weeks afterwards.

One possibility is that the object is a small satellite for monitoring the spaceplane. Chinese crew capsules have previously released ‘Banxing’ small companion satellites for monitoring purposes. It could also be a test for deploying small satellite payloads into orbit.

Another possible explanation is that the object is a service module, astronomer and spacecraft tracker Jonathan McDowell noted in a tweet.

Little is known about China’s spaceplane project. Chinese space authorities have closely guarded launch operations and only announced its two missions once the spacecraft was in orbit. 

Clues as to the dimensions and shape of the craft appeared in August however with apparent images of the payload fairing for the mission appearing online.

The spacecraft appears to be related to the development of an orbital segment of a fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit space transportation system. A suborbital segment—featuring a vertical takeoff and horizontal landing—had a second flight in September this year.

The project recently acquired national level funding from the Natural Science Foundation of China.

The project is seen to support the construction of China’s scientific and technological power, aerospace power and transportation power, and has practical social, technological, economic and other application values, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) which is developing the vehicles.

How long the spacecraft will remain in orbit is unknown but it is, as with its first flight, likely to land at the Lop Nur base in Xinjiang. Satellite imagery suggests recent activity near the landing site.

An analysis of the spaceplane’s orbit by Christy suggests that the spacecraft had an opportunity to deorbit and land at Lop Nur, the site for the landing of the first mission, late Nov. 1 UTC. 

The new orbit has repeating ground tracks roughly every 71 hours, meaning the spacecraft will make passes over Lop Nur and have opportunities to land once every three days. The opportunities during the coming weeks would however involve a landing during local nighttime. 

Other reusable spacecraft or spaceplane projects are under consideration in China. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC) is working on its own spaceplane, named Tengyun, while commercial firm Space Transportation last year raised more than $46.3 million for its hypersonic spaceplane plans.

A number of Chinese rocket companies have also created presentations including small spaceplanes launching atop concepts for liquid rockets.