China's Long March rocket carried a mysterious space plane on a secret mission into space this week — experts are puzzled as to what this spacecraft is up to. Credit: Handout.

After flying in orbit for two days, China’s reusable spacecraft landed safely to its designated site, marking a major breakthrough in the nation’s quest for dominance in space exploration, Xinhua News Agency reported.

So far, Chinese space authorities have been virtually silent on details of the experimental flight.

All that can be learned is that the spacecraft was successfully launched on Friday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, and the carrier rocket is the Long March-2F, the “go-to” launch vehicle for China’s manned space projects. 

The two-day flight experiment — which did not issue any official photos — was designed to test the performance of new materials for the reusable vehicle and to test the monitor and control system, Song Zhongping, a military expert, told the Global Times.

“The test would focus on the vehicle’s capability to enter orbit via a carrier rocket launch and the reliability of its returning to Earth, which are key for a reusable orbital vehicle,” said Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine.

Meanwhile, Space-Track.org, a US government database of public space launches that the US military’s Combined Space Operations Center and the US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command maintain, confirmed that the “PRC TEST SPACECRAFT” successfully made it into space, The War Zone reported.

There’s already speculation that the new space vehicle involved is a Chinese equivalent of the Boeing X-37B or the planned European Space Agency Space Rider.

The mysterious X-37B began its sixth mission on May 17, 2020, when it was launched from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, War Zone reported.

The Pentagon’s highly secretive X-37B operates much like a mini-space shuttle, launching atop a conventional rocket. The uncrewed craft has been operating for years with few official explanations of its actual mission.

In Earth orbit, the Space Rider will be able to maneuver for the duration of its space stay. The upper stage will be used as a service module that will provide propulsion capability to the spacecraft as well as solar panels for power supply. Credit: ESA.

Recently, however, it was confirmed that the spaceplane has been involved in experiments using the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module (PRAM), which is planned to eventually be able to harvest energy using solar panels and send that power back down to Earth in the form of microwaves, War Zone reported.

A vehicle like the X-37B would have the potential to carry reconnaissance payloads and even undertake offensive missions in space on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

These could include jamming or blinding enemy satellites, releasing microsatellites that could interfere with or damage other satellites, and more. It could also be utilized for a wide range of non-offensive experiments or other risk-reduction efforts, as well. 

Many of these missions could also be achieved by a recoverable capsule, which would be less technologically challenging to realize than a spaceplane, War Zone reported.

So far, however, no official details of the new Chinese spacecraft have been disclosed and there are reports that additional security was in place around the space center prior to launch, presumably to prevent unwanted “leaks” of imagery on social media.

Early details of this spaceplane provided by the Chinese media indicated that it would be a questionably ambitious design able to transport people or payloads weighing 8.6 tons into orbit before returning to Earth, War Zone reported.

The spacecraft could also potentially be a technology demonstrator, or at least a more modest vehicle, perhaps preceding the development of a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spaceplane, which would be able to venture to space without the need for a carrier rocket or additional fuel tanks and boosters.

The mysterious X-37B began its sixth mission on May 17, 2020, when it was launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA.

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