China might have closed an important gap with the US in spaceflight. The country’s state-run Xinhua News Agency says (via The Telegraph) an experimental reusable spacecraft successfully landed on September 6th after spending two days in orbit. Details of the vehicle and its mission are highly secretive, and China hasn’t even provided imagery as we write this. It’s not clear what the spacecraft accomplished or even how it flew, assuming the report is accurate.
There are hints that it might be a rough counterpart to the US Air Force’s X-37B space plane. In 2017, China said it wanted to launch an aircraft-like reusable space vehicle by 2020. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation hoped to have a space plane ready by 2025, albeit primarily for space tourism.
Xinhua said only that the craft represented an “important breakthrough” in China’s development of reusable spacecraft that could provide a cheaper, more convenient solution for the “peaceful use of space.” In other words, it might lower the costs of delivering payloads into space and allow for quicker turnaround times.
There are details for the rocket that launched the space plane, at least. China said it deployed the reusable vehicle using the Long March 2F, a veteran rocket system with a first launch in November 1999. The new machine clearly isn’t ready to take off by itself — it needed the help of a well-established mode of transportation to reach orbit.