HELSINKI — China sent a highly classified experimental reusable spacecraft into orbit on Thursday, two years after a similar clandestine mission.

A Long March 2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on August 4, sending a “reusable test space” into low Earth orbit, according to Chinese media Xinhua reported.

Xinhua confirmed the successful launch about three hours after a launch window opened at 12:00 p.m. Eastern, indicated by airspace closure notices issued a few days earlier.

The terse report said the test spacecraft would “operate in orbit for a period of time” before returning to its planned landing site in China. Technical verification of reusable and in-orbit services will be carried out as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space, according to a machine translation of the report.

The US Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron (18 SDS) then followed the spacecraft into a 346 by 593 kilometer orbit inclined at 50 degrees.

Chinese space authorities have not released any images of the launch or related operations of this or a similar profile mission. spear in 2020. The report did not say the mission would be a second flight of the spacecraft.

Although little is known about the spacecraft, it is assumed based on previous statements and activities that the vehicle is a spaceplane. It may be an orbital segment that will work with a reusable suborbital stage, apparently tested in 2021. The latter involved vertical takeoff and horizontal landing.

The Long March 2F typically launches the crewed missions from Shenzhou in China and has a payload capacity of just over eight metric tons in low Earth orbit, suggesting the spacecraft could be similar in size and function. at of the United States Air Force X-37B spaceplane. The Long March 2F and its payload fairing would have been modified to accommodate the launch of the reusable test spacecraft.

China’s previous orbital test of an experimental reusable spacecraft took place in September 2020, with the spacecraft spending just under two days in orbit. This released a small payload before landing in China.

Although there is little information about the mission, the project appears to fit into the space transportation development plans set by CASC, China’s main space contractor, and its main subsidiaries.

CASC has previously reiterated plans to develop reliable, low-cost access to space, including reusable launch vehicles and a spaceplane.

A space “white paper” published once every five years by the State Council Information Office in January declared that China would “continue to strengthen research on key technologies for reusable space transportation systems and conduct test flights accordingly.”

Chen Hongbo from the ACCS China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) told Science and Technology Daily (Chinese) in 2017 that a reusable spacecraft being developed would be capable of carrying both crew and payloads, would be tested In 2020.

Long Lehao, veteran chief designer of the Long March rocket series, last month present a range of space transportation concepts at a public lecture, including a rendering of a space plane, visible here.

Such a project will, however, face great technological and other challenges, said Bleddyn Bowen of the University of Leicester. SpaceNews.

“Space planes and reusable orbital vehicles have come and gone, and come back. There may be fringe and varied uses for them, but they are extremely expensive compared to conventional rockets because the stresses of atmospheric re-entry take their toll on materials and structures,” Bowen said.

“China’s development of spaceplane technology will be remarkable if they can overcome the problems encountered by Dyna-Soar and the space shuttle, as well as the challenges that SpaceX’s spacecraft also faces. We should view spaceplane development as part of China’s broader investments in all manner of space technologies, civil and military, not as something uniquely threatening or certain to succeed where others have failed.

Other spacecraft or reusable spaceplane projects are under consideration in China. The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), another giant public company, is working on its own space planenamed Tengyun.

“Unlike the rocket recycling adopted by SpaceX, the spaceplane can take off from an ordinary airport to carry spacecraft into orbit. This will bring about a revolution for future space transportation,” CASIC’s Zhang Hongwen told CCTV in 2018. .

In addition, the Chinese commercial company Space Transportation last year raised more than $46.3 million for his plans for hypersonic space planes.

Meanwhile, the American space plane X-37B is currently carrying out its sixth mission, which has already extended to more than 800 days in orbit.

CALT has also recently revealed its intention to develop a fully reusable super heavy launcher over the next decade, apparently inspired by the SpaceX Spatialship project.

Edited at 6:35 p.m. EST on August 4 to add information about the spacecraft’s orbit.