China launches and recovers reusable spacecraft: report

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The unmanned craft spent two days in orbit after being launched on Friday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China and landed Sunday at its “scheduled landing site,” the Xinhua news agency reported.

“The successful flight marked the country’s important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research and is expected to offer convenient and low-cost round trip transport for the peaceful use of the space,” said the brief three paragraph report.

China has not provided any pictures of the spacecraft nor given any details of its size or configuration.

It did say it was launched aboard a Long March-2F carrier rocket, the 14th mission for the rocket which has been used for Chinese manned missions and to send its space laboratory into orbit.

A Xinhua story three years ago said China would launch a reusable spacecraft this year, saying it would be different from “traditional one-off spacecraft” and “fly into the sky like an aircraft.”

The Chinese report drew widespread speculation that Beijing had launched something akin to the United States Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

The X-37B has been in orbit since late May following its launch on its sixth mission, according to an Air Force fact sheet. It is described as a smaller, unmanned version of the space shuttles, which NASA retired in 2011.

“The unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing,” the Air Force says. “Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends, and lands horizontally on a runway.”

The X-37B is used to test a wide range of technologies from avionics to propulsion to advanced materials for spaceflight, the Air Force says.

But each of the X-37Bs missions has been highly secretive, leading to public speculation that the planes could be used for spying activity or testing space weapons.

After the OTV completed a 780-day mission last October, the Air Force said it conducted experiments for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). The AFRL develops “warfighting technologies” for the air, space and cyberspace sectors, according to its website — for instance, it’s developing laser weapons that eventually may be mounted onto aircraft.

While China was tight-lipped about its reusable spacecraft over the weekend, the country has been accelerating its space program at a rapid pace over the past decade.

Buoyed by billions of dollars in government investment, Beijing has fired space labs and satellites into orbit and even become the first country to send an unmanned rover to the far side of the moon.

Beijing is working toward sending astronauts to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

In July, China launched its first unmanned mission to the Red Planet. The Tianwen-1 probe will orbit the planet before landing a rover on the surface, with the hope that it can gather important information about the Martian soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere, and search for signs of water.

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