Запуск оптического спутника дистанционного зондирования с космодрома Цзюцюань в августе (Wang Jiangbo/Zuma Press)

China launches reusable space shuttle in strict secrecy


China announced the successful launch of an experimental spaceplane, another achievement in the country’s space program. The reusable spacecraft, mounted on the Changzheng 2F (Long March) rocket, was launched into orbit on Friday from the Jiuquan Cosmodrome in the Gobi Desert in northern China, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Launch of an optical remote sensing satellite from the Jiuquan Cosmodrome in August (Wang Jiangbo / Zuma Press)

Launch of an optical remote sensing satellite from the Jiuquan Cosmodrome in August (Wang Jiangbo / Zuma Press)

Unlike recent high-profile missions, China’s National Space Agency did not announce the launch ahead of time. All information is kept in strict secrecy: there are not even photos of the launch. According to Xinhua, the mission is designed to test the technology of the spacecraft, which will provide technical support for programs for the peaceful use of space. No further details were provided about the capabilities of the shuttle or the planned duration of its stay in orbit.

US Air Force X-37B secret reusable spaceplane

US Air Force X-37B secret reusable spaceplane

Both China and the United States have secret programs to develop unmanned, reusable spaceplanes. Last year, the US Air Force’s X-37B test orbiter, which resembles a miniature version of the sunken Space Shuttle, completed a 780-day mission in orbit.

Another US program for the development of experimental spaceplanes, carried out by Boeing and the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was phased out earlier this year.

China has been working on its own reusable unmanned shuttle since at least 2007, when images of the Shenlong spacecraft suspended under the fuselage of a Chinese carrier aircraft H-6 (analogous to the domestic Tu-16) were widely circulated in the Chinese media. In 2011, the state broadcaster in Shaanxi province in northern China reported that Shenlong had made a suborbital flight, although little is known about the top-secret program.

Chinese Long March 5 launch vehicle

Chinese Long March 5 launch vehicle

Xinhua did not say whether the craft launched on Friday is a version of the Shenlong or an entirely new spacecraft. Last year, the state-run China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics released images that it said showed wind tunnel tests of a prototype spaceplane capable of horizontal launch from a larger aircraft before using the powerful propulsion system to take off into orbit.

Last year, the United States created a military space command to counter perceived threats in space, mainly from China and Russia.

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