It’s been nearly six days since China launched a “reusable test space vehicle” with little fanfare and the apparent spaceplane is still on orbit, more than doubling the time spent in flight by its predecessor in 2020.
Watchers of China’s space program, like reporter Andrew Jones, say that the specs of the rocket and fairing used for the launch suggest the payload was something similar to a small version of the US Space Force X-37B spaceplane. The X-37B has famously been able to stay in orbit for over two years continuously.
Both spacecraft are uncrewed.
Dutch scientist and orbit watcher Marco Langbroek claims to have captured the secretive vehicle and the upper stage of the rocket that launched it in the below video on Sunday.
The official acknowledgment of the mission from Chinese state-run media was terse at best. A three-sentence statement confirmed that a Long March 2F rocket launched from the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
“The test spacecraft will be in orbit for a period of time before returning to the scheduled landing site in China, during which reusable and in-orbit service technology verification will be carried out as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space,” the statement concludes via Google Translate.
The first launch of a Chinese spaceplane in September 2020 landed after two days at a location in western China called Lop Nur. Recent satellite photos appear to show activity at the same location.
It’s not totally clear what the Chinese or American spaceplanes actually do in orbit, although testing of surveillance technology seems a safe bet.