China’s spaceplane remains in orbit but clues emerge from recovered launch debris

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HELSINKI — A Chinese reusable experimental spacecraft remains in orbit nearly two weeks after launch, despite passing directly over its expected landing site early Monday.

The “reusable experiment spacecraft” launched from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert atop of a Long March 2F rocket Aug. 4 and has remained in 346 by 593 kilometer orbit inclined by 50 degrees since launch, according to tracking by the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron (18 SDS).

Though China has released no details of the mission, there are clear differences from the spacecraft’s apparent first outing in September 2020. The new mission orbit is more eccentric than that of the first, when the spaceplane spent two days in an orbit of 331 by 347 kilometers. 

The previous mission saw the spaceplane release a small test satellite emitting S-band radio signals. The sat was possibly similar to the small Banxing satellites released by previous Shenzhou crewed missions to make observations.

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.

The spacecraft is also spending a much longer time in orbit, passing up a good opportunity for landing. At 0700 UTC Monday the spaceplane was due to pass over the Lop Nur base in Xinjiang, the reported site for the 2020 mission landing. The spacecraft remained in orbit however, tracking from 18 SDS confirms.

China’s 2020 and ongoing 2022 spaceplane missions have been highly classified, with no images of the spacecraft nor its launch released. When the spacecraft will land is also not known. 

The terse news report from Chinese media following the Aug. 4 launch stated that the test spacecraft will “operate in orbit for a period of time” before returning to its intended landing site in China, mirroring the report from the first mission.

Surprisingly, given the prior level of secrecy surrounding the project, apparent debris from the recent Long March 2F launch was put on display at a middle school in the city of Jiyuan in Henan province, notably including payload fairing. 

The fairing appears to be a modified version of the 4.2-meter-diameter, 12.7-meter-long shroud used previously with the Long March 2F to launch 8-metric-ton Tiangong test space labs.

The fairing shows additions which could have been made to accommodate the extra wingspan of a reusable winged spacecraft, similar to the U.S. X-37B uncrewed spaceplane.

When it does land, the spaceplane is expected to touch down horizontally at a landing strip near Lop Nur. Satellite imagery shows recent activity near the landing strip.

While there is little information about the mission, the project appears to fit into space transportation development plans outlined by CASC, China’s main space contractor, and its major subsidiaries.

CASC has previously iterated plans to develop low-cost, reliable access to space, including reusable launch vehicles and a spaceplane. The project, as described, would need to be scaled up dramatically from the test spacecraft currently in orbit.

A once-every-five-year space “white paper” released by the State Council Information Office in January stated that China would, “continue to strengthen research into key technologies for reusable space transport systems, and conduct test flights accordingly.”

Chen Hongbo, from CASC’s China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told Science and Technology Daily (Chinese) in 2017 that an under-development reusable spacecraft would be capable of carrying both crew and payloads, would be tested in 2020.

Long Lehao, a veteran chief designer of the Long March rocket series, last month presented a range of space transportation concepts during a public lecture, including a spaceplane render, viewable here.

Meanwhile, the U.S. X-37B spaceplane is currently carrying out its sixth mission, which has already extended to more than 800 days in orbit.