China Launches Experimental Reusable Spacecraft for the Third Time

China has launched its experimental reusable spacecraft for the third time; the Long March 2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on December 14, according to Chinese state media Xinhua. 

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Published: 14th Dec 2023 20:19 GMT
Written by: Zac Aubert

China has launched its experimental reusable spacecraft for the third time; the Long March 2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on December 14, according to Chinese state media Xinhua. 

While airspace closure notices hinted at a launch time around 10:00 a.m. Eastern (1500 UTC), the official report, published within an hour of the expected launch, did not provide a specific time. The report mentioned that the test spacecraft would "operate in orbit for a period of time" before returning to its designated landing site in China.

"During this period, reusable technology verification and space science experiments will be carried out as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space."

The third launch comes just over seven months after the spacecraft's return from its 276-day-long second mission, a significantly shorter interval compared to the one year and 11 months gap between the first and second missions.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the spacecraft's developer, has maintained strict secrecy around the project, providing no details or images of the experimental reusable spacecraft.

It is launched vertically on a Long March 2F rocket, commonly used for China's Shenzhou crewed missions, with a payload capacity of just over eight metric tons to low Earth orbit. This suggests similarities in size and function with the U.S. Air Force's X-37B spaceplane.

Previous missions of the spacecraft included deploying satellites into orbit, scientific experiments, and various orbital maneuvers during its second flight. The third mission is expected to have a different scope, likely focusing on further testing the spacecraft's capabilities.

The reusable spacecraft is speculated to be part of a broader strategy by China to become a major spacefaring nation. Chinese President Xi Jinping has set a national goal for China to be a powerful aerospace country, recognizing the space industry as a critical element of the overall national strategy.

CASC's development of reusable spacecraft technology aligns with its plans for a fully reusable, two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) space transportation system. The spaceplane project received national-level funding from the Natural Science Foundation of China last year.

In addition to CASC, CASIC, a sister giant defense and space contractor, is working on its own TSTO spaceplane named Tengyun. 

CASC is also in the process of developing a super heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle named Long March 9, while the Long March 10, intended for crewed lunar missions, will feature a potentially reusable first stage.

The recent launch and continued developments underscore China's commitment to advancing its space capabilities and positioning itself as a significant player in the global space exploration arena.

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