China's Reusable Spacecraft Returns to Earth after a Weekend in Orbit

After three years of hard work, China's reusable spaceship was launched to space and safely returned to Earth.
Susan Fourtané
The Long March 5 (Y2) rocket being rolled out at Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on June 26, 2017. China News Service

The 2020s might be known in history as the decade when space missions and the modern space race accelerated the conquest of the next frontier. While most of the news we read tells us about what NASA, ESA, and SpaceX have accomplished, others such as China, launch their space missions without too much fanfare. Or, as a secret mission. 

In 2017, Chinese officials announced their plans to launch their own new spacecraft by 2020. The reusable rocket would also launch and land horizontally and take-off from a runway before entering orbit. While the concept is similar to that of SpaceX, China's version is distinct in its own right.  

After three years of hard work, this past Friday, September 4, 2020, a reusable spaceship was launched on a Long March 2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (or Launch Complex B2) in the Gobi Desert. On Sunday, September 6, the Chinese News Agency Xinhua reported that the Chinese reusable experimental spaceship successfully returned to Earth after having spent two days in the terrestrial orbit. The secretive experiment marks a historical milestone in China's quest to master reusable spacecraft. 

According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the spacecraft's mission was "to test the reusable technology during space flight and to provide technological support in peace exploration of space." The Chinese reusable experimental spaceship was registered in the catalog of space objects under the international designation of 2020-063 and number 46389.

The International Designator is an international identifier assigned to artificial objects in space. The designation system is generally known as the COSPAR system, which stands for the Committee of Space Research Identifier (COSPAR) of the International Council for Science. The International Designator is also known as NSSDCA ID (NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive).

China's reusable spacecraft blasts off for first time in secretive launch

In an historical launch, on the early morning of September 4, 2020, China's first ever reusable spacecraft was blasted into space from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. According to the Chinese Aerospace Agency, the mission will prepare the Chinese space program for a next-generation of future manned space missions.

The experimental spacecraft remained in-orbit operation for the course of the weekend, returning to the scheduled landing site in China on Sunday. Not much detail has been revealed about either the spacecraft or the launch, though. Part of the secrecy of the mission was shown when the South China Morning Post told staff and visitors not to film the launch or discuss it on social media channels.

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The secrecy makes sense, however, when there is so much that is new about the mission. An anonymous military source said that "there are many firsts in this launch. The spacecraft is new, the launch method is also different. That's why we need to make sure there is extra security."

The Chinese spacecraft is a secretive as the American X-37B

China's Reusable Spacecraft Returns to Earth after a Weekend in Orbit
Will we have a space rocket war?, Source: wenjin chen/iStock

There was a hint suggesting that the Chinese spacecraft was similar to the X-37B, an American experimental Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) that is reusable, too, and also shrouded in similar secrecy. The mysterious X-37B military aircraft, which is a classified program, departed for its sixth mission on May 17, 2020 from Cape Canaveral, and it is currently still in space. The X-37B mission was set to deploy a satellite into orbit, and also test power-beaming technology.

A difference between the Chinese and the American experimental spacecraft may be that the American X-37B is an unmanned craft whereas the Chinese might not be.

According to a statement made back in March this year by the Xi'an Aerospace Propulsion Institute, a research and development company within the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) conglomerate, "the mission will be an important scientific experimental mission, and will lay the foundation for future manned space programs."

China's space program

The Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) is one the world's fastest-growing space agencies in existence today. From its relatively humble beginnings sixty years ago, the CNSA has come to be one of the biggest contenders in the modern-day space race leading a rapidly growing space program. China is the world's third largest space power. In the near future, it may go further and become a superpower in space.

In 2016, China conducted the first launch of their Long March 5 rocket, a two-stage heavy launch vehicle that plays a vital role in China's future plans in space. China has also made significant strides in the development of space stations in recent years.

The CNSA plans on applying the lessons learned from their first two space stations creating a large, modular space station. This project is planned to begin in 2022. This space station will be the third modular space station to be built in Earth orbit, after Mir (1986-2001), and the International Space Station  (ISS), (1998-present). 

The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) conglomerate has reportedly laid out plans for developing a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane by 2030. The development would be part of a larger push to implement fully reusable launch vehicles, and even a nuclear-powered space shuttle.

Beijing's space program, which has been growing at an incredibly fast pace in recent years, has accomplished several important firsts including placing a robotic vehicle on the far side of the Moon. A new heavy-lift rocket, the Long March 5, which was successfully tested back in May and used for the launch of the spacecraft on Friday, will one day be ready to lift a Chinese manned Moon mission into orbit. The Moon mission is expected as early as 2030.

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