- The secretive Chinese space plane completes a nine-month orbit, marking its second successful landing and positioning China among an exclusive group capable of launching and retrieving reusable spacecraft.
- Echoing similarities with the US's Boeing X-37B, the Chinese spacecraft's design and capabilities remain an enigma, yet it possibly harbors an innovative satellite manipulation capability.
- While its primary role might involve repairing faulty satellites or clearing orbital debris, its potential military application can't be ruled out, leaving room for speculation until further details are unveiled.
With its second successful landing, China's enigmatic space plane concludes its nine-month-long sojourn in orbit. This accomplishment cements China's position among a select group that has triumphantly launched and retrieved reusable spacecraft.
The state-controlled news agency Xinhua heralded this as a monumental achievement in China's pursuit of cutting-edge reusable spacecraft technology. However, the shroud of mystery over the craft remains as the Chinese government has been tight-lipped about its specific design, capabilities, and performance metrics.
Observers infer that the Chinese vehicle could be akin to the Boeing X-37B, the United States' space plane that took its inaugural flight in 2010. Kevin Pollpeter, an esteemed researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses, postulated in a conversation with Nature.com that China's interest might have been piqued by the X-37B's potential military applications. This could have catalyzed China's military-aligned space program to undertake the development of their variant.
The Chinese spacecraft mirrors the X-37B in terms of its likely uncrewed status and compact dimensions. Tentatively, its inaugural flight was in September 2020, marking a brief two-day orbital excursion before its return. Its latest mission was flagged off in August 2022 on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northern China, as per the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report. The mission's exact objective remains shrouded in ambiguity.
In an intriguing twist, the CSIS report indicates that the craft dispatched an "object" into orbit in October, which then seemed to vanish in January, only to reappear on satellite tracking radars in March. Speculations suggest that this might hint at the plane's ability to manipulate satellites, perhaps with a robotic arm. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, referenced China's extensive work with robotic arms in other space contexts. Consequently, the primary function of the plane might be to repair dysfunctional satellites or clear orbital debris, albeit this doesn't preclude potential military uses for either the Chinese plane or the X-37B. Until more details emerge, we are left to conjecture.
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