China’s mysterious spaceplane is still going strong in orbit. But what is it up to?

We may find out soon.
Christopher McFadden
  • China's X-37B lookalike spaceplane was launched into orbit last week.
  • The current mission is its longest and highest yet.
  • Its mission is still a complete secret.

The Long March 2F vehicle, one of China's most dependable rockets, launched a covert spacecraft last week from a spaceport in the Gobi Desert.

The government gave little information about the "reusable test spacecraft" in a brief article on the launch by China's state-run Xinhua news service, other than to suggest that it will stay in orbit for "a period of time" and provide technical testing of reusable and in-orbit services.

Thought to be very similar to the US Space Force's experimental X-37B spacecraft, the Chinese spaceplane's latest launch, is the second of two launches to date. The unmanned X-37B looks a lot like NASA's space shuttle, although it is far smaller at less than about 33 feet (10 meters) in length. The vehicle's cargo bay can hold something about the size of a standard refrigerator.

Cheng Hongbo, a Chinese space development official, stated in an interview from 2017 that the Chinese spacecraft may make up to 20 trips.

In September 2020, China launched its spacecraft for the first time. Two days later, after a brief flight, it landed at a runway in Lop Nur, a dry salt lake bed in western China.

Launched on August 4, the current trip has already been in the air for five days, more than double the time of the initial test flight. The spacecraft is flying in a much more eccentric orbit this time, 215 miles (346 km) by 369 miles (593 km) and inclined at 50 degrees above the equator, according to reporter Andrew Jones who specializes in the Chinese space program. This is in contrast to the spacecraft's orbit in 2020, which orbited at 206 miles (331 km) by 216 miles (347 km) and had a similar inclination.

What is the Chinese spaceplane up to?

In short, nobody outside of Chinese officials really knows for sure. But, we also don't really know what the American X037B is up to either.

The X-37B has flown six times since 2010, yet we still don't know what the US Space Force is doing with it. Although military officials have never given a thorough public explanation of the U.S. vehicle's operations, it probably fulfills a variety of functions, including serving as an in-orbit test bed for creating new surveillance sensors.

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Two X-37B vehicles are owned by the Space Force, and even their initial flights lasted more than 200 days. The X-37B has broken records for endurance on its most recent journey, which was launched in May 2020. The current mission has been in orbit for 813 days and counting.

The Chinese spacecraft's initial flight's shorter length would suggest that it has a special role in testing hypersonic technologies or other tasks associated with a high-velocity atmospheric reentry.

But, we can't ever really be sure.

After landing, the Space Force typically distributes photographs of the X-37B vehicle, but China hasn't yet made any images or footage of its spacecraft public. Satellite trackers and Planet Labs satellite photos of the Lop Nur landing site in China were the only ways we were able to determine when it had landed in 2020.

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