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China's Mysterious Spaceplane Still Hasn't Landed Yet

The launch of the experimental spacecraft was highly classified.

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The Long March-5B Y3 rocket, which carries the Wentian lab module to China's under-construction space station in orbit, blasts off at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in south China's Hainan province Sunday, July 24, 2022.
The Chinese spaceplane module launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket under mysterious circumstances.
Photo: LIU HUAIYU (AP)

China recently launched a secretive reusable spaceplane, and the mysterious spacecraft is still flying around with no information on when it is meant to land. The experimental spaceplane missed an opportunity to land early Monday as it flew right over its landing site, and has now flown higher and longer than before.

It’s been nearly two weeks since China launched a reusable spacecraft experiment onboard a Long March 2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, state media reported at the time. Details on the spacecraft were scarce, with the Chinese government stating that it would remain in orbit for a vague “period of time.” This was China’s second attempt to launch a reusable spaceplane to orbit, with the first test spacecraft taking off in September 2020 with a similarly secretive liftoff.

But the second spaceplane is on a more eccentric orbit, and has stayed aloft for a much longer duration of time. The first test saw the spaceplane stay in orbit for about two days, and release a small payload before landing back on Earth. This time, experts monitoring the spaceplane’s flight so far have noted that its orbit is about 214 miles by 369 miles (346 kilometers by 593 kilometers) inclined at 50 degrees above the equator, while the first spaceplane flew at about 205 miles by 215 miles with a similar inclination (331 km by 347 km), according to Ars Technica.

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Instead of releasing a single payload, the U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron tracked seven objects in orbit along with the spaceplane, the majority of which may be debris from the Long March rocket but at least one or two objects could be inspector satellites tracking the spacecraft itself, according to Space News. The Space Force also noted that the spaceplane was due to pass over its landing site at the Lop Nur base in Xinjiang on Monday, but it remained in orbit instead of touching down on the landing strip.

The idea behind a spaceplane is to have an airplane/spacecraft hybrid vehicle that launches to space onboard a traditional, vertical rocket. The spaceplane operates like a regular aircraft in Earth’s atmosphere, and a spacecraft while in space, therefore being able to complete a mission in space and land back on Earth relatively smoothly.

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The Space Force has its own spaceplane, the Boeing X-37, which launched in May 2020 for the sixth test flight and has been aloft ever since then for more than 800 days. Much like the Chinese spaceplane, there’s very little detail about what the spaceplane is doing in orbit, or when it’s going to come down. We’ll be watching the skies to see when either, or both, spaceplanes decide to touch down.

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