China quietly lands its ultra-secret experimental spacecraft and claims it achieved ‘key breakthroughs in reusable technologies’

  • The Long March-2F carrier landed after a two-day test trial, state media has said
  • The craft will test reusable technologies and support ‘the peaceful use of space’
  • China’s new reusable experimental spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecy 
  • People were reportedly prevented from filming the lift-off or discussing it online 

China has landed its secretive reusable experimental spacecraft back on Earth after a successful two-day test flight.  

Long March-2F carrier was launched into orbit last Friday from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the northwestern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia.

It returned to the scheduled landing site as planned on Sunday, the official state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.  

The reusable experimental spacecraft, of which no pictures have emerged, was launched to test ‘reusable technologies’ during its flight and could lead to a ‘convenient and inexpensive way’ to reach space. 

A Long March-2F carrier delivered the spacecraft into orbit from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in north-western Chinese region Inner Mongolia, reported state media Xinhua. The file picture shows a modified model of the Long March CZ-2F rocket carrying the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou 8 taking off from northwest China on November 1, 2011

‘China’s reusable experimental spacecraft on Sunday returned to the scheduled landing site after a two-day in-orbit operation,’ said Xinhua. 

‘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.’  

Orbital data later confirmed that the vehicle had been placed in an orbit at a similar height to China’s previous crewed flights, New Scientist reports. 

The ‘space plane’ could take Chinese astronauts to and from China’s planned future space station. 

‘A space plane is an ideal technology for atmospheric re-entry due to less brutal accelerations for the human body,’ said Shenzhen-based space analyst Jean Deville. 

The mission appears to have been carried out with low-key preparations and high-level security, and the specifics of the spacecraft are yet to be revealed. 

No images of the spacecraft or its lift-off have yet to be released, and staff and visitors at the launch site were prevented from filming or discussing the project online, according to reports. 

A copy of an official document circulated online warned people not to film on the launch site or discuss the project online, according to South China Morning Post.

The official memo read: ‘All units should strengthen personnel security education and personnel management during missions to ensure that there is no leakage of secrets.’ 

A Chinese military source confirmed the authenticity of the notice to the Hong Kong newspaper and said: ‘There are many firsts in this launch. 

‘The spacecraft is new, the launch method is also different. That’s why we need to make sure there is extra security.’ 

The source also suggested that the Chinese spacecraft was similar to the X-37B, a reusable robotic spacecraft launched by the US Air Force.

Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, the US’s unmanned spacecraft takes off vertically and returns to the Earth horizontally on a runway landing.

The Boeing-made space plane has flown four secret, long-duration missions in Earth orbit to date. 

On July 23, China launched its Tianwen-1 spacecraft (pictured) to Mars, which is due to arrive on the Red Planet next February after a seven-month, 34-million-mile voyage

A Long March-5 rocket carrying an orbiter, lander and rover as part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, blasts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on July 23 in Hainan, China

China revealed back in 2017 that it’s planning to launch a spacecraft in 2020 that can fly like an aircraft and would be reusable, increasing the frequency of launches and lowering mission costs.

Last year, it became the first country to land a robot rover on the moon’s little-seen far side, and in July this year launched its robot rover to Mars.    

The Tianwen-1 is due to arrive on the Red Planet next February after a seven-month, 34-million-mile voyage.

The unmanned space probe took off aboard a Long March 5 Y-4 carrier rocket on July 23 from Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island province of Hainan, China.

The craft, which consists of an orbiter, lander and rover, measures just over six feet in height (1.85m) and weighs 530 pounds (240kg).

It will survey the composition, types of substance, geological structure and meteorological environment of the Martian surface, and look for signs of alien life. 

The launch of Tianwen-1 in July was sandwiched by the launch of two other missions to Mars by the US and the UAE. 

THREE MISSIONS TO MARS IN THE SPACE OF 10 DAYS

There are three major missions bound for Mars in the space of just 10 days this month – the UAE’s Hope orbiter, China’s Tianwen-1 craft and NASA’s Perseverance rover. 

The countries are taking advantage of a period when Earth and Mars are favourably aligned for a relatively short journey.  

July 20: Hope (UAE)

The 3,000lb (1,350kg) craft (pictured) will complete one orbit every 55 hours for a total of one Martian year — 687 Earth days

 – The 2,970-pound probe was built entirely within the Emirates, launched from Japan and will take seven months to reach the Red Planet. 

– When the orbiter gets there in February 2021, it will stay in orbit for a whole Martian year – 687 days. 

– Hope will not land on the Martian surface but take readings from the Red Planet’s atmosphere.  

– Hope will help answer key questions about the Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year – called a ‘sol’. 

– Three instruments mounted on the probe will provide a picture of Mars’s atmosphere throughout the year, and all of the data gathered will be made widely available. 

– This includes an infrared spectrometer to measure the lower atmosphere and temperature, a high-resolution imager to study the ozone and another to look at levels of hydrogen and oxygen up to 27,000 miles from the surface. 

July 23: Tianwen-1

The Chinese space exploration authority introduced the nation’s first Mars rover Tianwen-1 (pictured) at a grand ceremony earlier this month. The rover measures just over six feet in height

 – This robotic spacecraft consists of an orbiter (stationed in the atmosphere), a lander (stationary on the planet’s surface) and a rover (roaming the surface). 

– The craft measures just over six feet in height (1.85m) and weighs 530 pounds (240kg). 

– It will survey the composition, types of substance, geological structure and meteorological environment of the Martian surface. 

– The solar-powered machine is designed to work on Mars for three Martian months, about 92 Earth days.

– It includes a geological camera, a multispectral camera, a subsurface detection radar, a surface composition detector, a surface magnetic field detector and a weather detector.

– A poem pondering on the stars and planets written over 2000 years ago was the inspiration for the name of China’s first exploration mission to Mars. 

– Called Tianwen (天问), the poem was written by ancient Chinese literati and politician Qu Yuan (339-278BC), who lived in the Chu State (770-223BC). 

July 30: Perseverance

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover will pick up samples of rock and soil from the red planet, deposit them in tubes and leave them on the ground for a future mission to return them to Earth.

– NASA’s Perseverance rover is the heaviest payload yet to go to the Red Planet – at a car-sized 2,259 pounds (1,025kg).  

The mission will seek signs of past microbial life on Mars and collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.   

– The Mars Perseverance rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a ‘cache’ on the surface of Mars. 

– The rover will travel using an ultraviolet laser to determine what minerals and compounds are present in the soil, based on the way the light scatters. 

– The Mars 2020 rover, which was built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California., is now at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final preparations. 

– It launches to space on July 30 and is set to touch down on Mars in 12 months. 

– It has a mission duration of 1 Mars year (668 sols or 687 Earth days) and will touch down on the planet’s Jezero crater on Mars in February 2021.  

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