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China’s Experimental Reusable Spacecraft Releases Unknown Object Into Orbit During 3rd Mission

China’s experimental reusable spacecraft has released an unknown object into orbit while conducting its third mission.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Wed May 29 2024Written by Zac Aubert

China’s experimental reusable spacecraft has released an unknown object into orbit while conducting its third mission.

This development has been cataloged by U.S. Space Force space domain awareness teams as object 59884 (International designator 2023-195G).

The spaceplane, suspected to be similar to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B, launched on December 14, 2023, and has been in orbit for 164 days. The object was released on May 24, 2024.

The object is suspected to be a subsatellite deployment or a piece of hardware ejected prior to the mission's end and deorbit.

China has maintained a high level of secrecy around this mission. The country's space authorities have not released any images or detailed descriptions of the spacecraft. The only official Chinese report on the activity was a brief launch announcement issued hours after the event.

“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.” - China

This spacecraft is seen as China's attempt to develop capabilities similar to the US X-37B.

Reusable spacecraft represent a significant advancement in space technology, offering the potential for reduced costs and increased mission frequency. The Long March 2F rocket, which launched the spacecraft, has a payload capacity of just over eight metric tons to low Earth orbit. This suggests that the spacecraft could be somewhat similar in size and function to the X-37B.

This notion is supported by images of the payload fairing wreckage from the second launch which provide insight about the spacecraft’s dimensions and shape.

China's reusable spacecraft program has seen rapid development. The first flight in 2020 lasted two days, and the second, launched in 2022, had a duration of 276 days. Both missions included the release of an object while in orbit. The time between the first and second missions was nearly two years, but the third mission saw a turnaround of just seven months.

During its third flight, the spacecraft has performed maneuvers to alter its orbit. Initially, it entered a 333 by 348-kilometer-altitude orbit inclined by 50 degrees. The spacecraft later raised its orbit, through a series of maneuvers, to a current orbit of 602 by 609 kilometers.

The reusable spacecraft may be the orbital component designed to work in conjunction with a reusable suborbital first stage. China tested a reusable suborbital spacecraft for the first time in 2021, followed by a second mission in August 2022. This suborbital craft employs vertical takeoff and horizontal landing.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which developed the spacecraft, announced plans to create a fully reusable, two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) space transportation system before its first launch. CASC’s spaceplane project received national-level funding from the Natural Science Foundation of China in 2022.